Support is growing for a radical solution to poverty: giving everyone a monthly check to help cover their basic needs.
Proponents of the so-called universal basic income predict it would save taxpayers money in the long run, due to less government spending on housing assistance and other welfare programs. Critics dismiss UBI as a socialist wealth-redistribution scheme that rewards people for doing nothing.
Thirty-eight percent of Americans think raising income taxes on those who earn more than $150,000 a year to provide everyone with $1,000 per month is a good idea, according to a poll by Data for Progress, a left-leaning think tank; and YouGov. The organizations surveyed more than 1,500 voters nationwide.
Forty percent of the respondents were opposed to the plan. However, the poll indicated that UBI is much more popular than the tax cuts the Republican-controlled Congress recently approved. Forty-seven percent of taxpayers who make $10,000 to $30,000 annually favored a UBI, with only 24 percent of them holding the opposite view. Fifty-nine percent of those earning more than $100,000 rejected the proposal, while 27 percent of them backed it.
The Nation noted that Americans are becoming more receptive to socialist answers to the country's problems, as evidenced by the rise of left-wing congressional candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York. The 28-year-old upstart shocked the political establishment when she defeated Rep. Joe Crowley, a high-ranking House Democrat, in a primary election earlier this year.
Ocasio-Cortez, as well as several other candidates across the country who describe themselves as democratic socialists, are running on platforms calling for universal health care, free college tuition, and a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders mounted a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries by touting those issues.
UBI advocates point out that Congress had no qualms about borrowing $1.5 trillion to give tax breaks to the rich, or increasing military spending by $700 billion. Though a guaranteed minimum income is also expensive, it would reduce the child-poverty rate, which costs an estimated $500 billion a year in social programs.
The Nation cited polls showing that about 75 percent of voters are open to raising taxes on large corporations and wealthy individuals to fight poverty. About 50 percent believe too much taxpayer money is flowing to the Pentagon.
Current social programs are failing to address the growing gap between the rich and the poor. The Trump administration has worsened the crisis by making it harder for people to get health care, food stamps, and other assistance. Twelve years ago, 68 percent of low-income households received food stamps. Today, the figure is closer to 20 percent.
Stockton, California, last month decided to become the first city in the United States to implement a UBI by giving 100 of its poorest residents $500 per month for a year and a half. Officials are concerned about the community's poverty rate, as well as job losses resulting from automation.
Facebook founders Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Hughes enthusiastically support the program, which is expected to begin next year. Hughes, through his Economic Security Project, donated a million dollars to the Stockton campaign.
“It is such a fundamental idea behind America that if you work hard, you can get ahead — and you certainly don't live in poverty,” Hughes told CNN. “But that isn't true today, and it hasn't been true in the country for decades. I believe that unless we make significant changes today, the income inequality in our country will continue to grow and call into question the very nature of our social contract.”
A quarter of Stockton's 300,000 residents are impoverished. The city's median annual income of $49,271 is lower than the national rate of $57,617.
“We have a bunch of folks starting off life already behind, born into communities that don't have a lot of opportunity,” said the city's mayor, Michael Tubbs. He warned of a “looming threat of automation and displacement” by employers who “have a responsibility to make sure people aren't adversely impacted.”
The competition to be included in the 100-person program is intense. “My email inbox is inundated daily with residents from the community wanting to know, 'What's the sign-up process? Has it already started? Am I already too late? What do I have to do?'” said Lori Ospina, director of the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration.
CNN reported that another California city, Oakland, is using funds contributed by Y Combinator to provide $1,000 per month to 1,000 residents for five years.
UBI also has been tried in countries such as Finland, Italy, Uganda, Cambodia, and India. Finnish officials send 560-euro monthly checks to 2,000 unemployed citizens, while Cambodia provides $5 a month to pregnant women and their children.
The concept is not new. Alaska has a 40-year history of providing income to its residents by sharing the state's oil-company royalties.