Seattle’s median annual income is now $80,000, working middle class folks have been priced out of housing and the number of homeless people is skyrocketing. Communities everywhere are wrestling with similar social problems and officials are stumped for solutions. We’re stymied by job shortages as clever robots displace lower and middle-income workers. Flummoxed by soaring housing costs and thwarted by yawning income inequality.
One thing seems clear: What we’ve been doing isn’t working. . .except of course for the .01 percent of gazillionaires.
How about providing everyone with an unrestricted basic income? A small, guaranteed salary, as it were, for simply being a part of humankind’? Your own bit of cash to let you cope with the complexities of life in our roiling-change times.
Take a deep breath and consider the idea of UBI, an Unconditional Basic Income, which may seem radical, although it’s been around for decades.
Saving taxpayers’ $$
First, surprisingly enough, an Unconditional Basic Income turns out to be a money-saver. When money is given with no strings attached, there’s no need for agencies to dole out funds for vouchers or food stamps and determine who’s a qualified recipient. No need to monitor for compliance with countless pages of complex and often contradictory rules.
Poof! A whole layer of bureaucracy gone.
Given money with no strings attached, people are free to decide what produce, milk or cheese to buy, what housing they can or cannot afford, whether to fix the roof or buy a fancy phone. Whether to invest in education, volunteer, start their own business or change careers.
Feeling less dependent on a regular job, people negotiate for a shorter workweek, trading money for time with family, time to care for a child or an aging relative. Some nurture their own creativity in art or music. Others transform a hobby into a new business.
For decades, Alaska’s had a Universal Basic Income– a mini version anyway – in dividends from the state’s Permanent Fund. What’s given to each Alaskan citizen isn’t “free money.” Rather, it’s Alaska distributing a portion of the earnings of the state’s publicly owned natural resources (initially oil) to the owners —the citizens of the state.
Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend, established in 1976 in the midst of its black gold rush, aimed to transform a non-renewable resource into a sustainable resource by investing it its citizens –while locking in some funds away for the inevitable post-boom slumps. This modest dividend, $2,000-something last year, is particularly important in rural areas where local economies are largely a mixture of government cash-based transfers and subsistence activities and family wage paying jobs are scarce.
The results are fascinating: Alaska was the only state in which the income of the bottom 20 percent grew at a faster rate (25 percent) than the income of the top 20 percent (10 percent), according to one study. Today Alaska has the lowest income inequality of any state in the nation.
Alaska’s dividend is “pretty much the closest thing the world has to a universal basic income anywhere,” according to Scott Santens, whose well-sourced web page, A Guide to Basic Income: Frequently Asked Questions about UBI, is worth your time.
The idea of a state providing every citizen an unconditional basic income — regardless of age, health, employment, or social standing — is gaining support. Hawaii’s now considering a basic income, as is Switzerland.
In December 2016, a group of heavy-hitters including Facebook Co-Founder Chris Hughes, Harvard Law School Professor Yochai Benkler, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza and Alaska State Senator Bill Wielechowski joined in supporting a $10 million effort to fund The Economic Security Project. The project will fund two years of exploring and experimenting with the idea of a universal basic income,
“America ought to be a place where if you work hard, you can get ahead – that’s the promise of the American Dream and the lesson we’ve been taught for generations. But far too many Americans are struggling to survive, instead of thriving and pursuing passions that could create a better world for all of us,” said Natalie Foster, Future of Work expert and third co-chair of the new group in a CNBC interview.
A Universal Basic Income promises a path to get there from here.