Tanzina Vega: The COVID-19 pandemic has created an economic crisis for many of us, so much so that a recent New York Times advertisement called on the Biden administration to offer $2,400 direct payments to American mothers for the unpaid labor of childcare and homeschooling, but working mothers aren't the only group that had been the focus of a campaign for cash payments. The concept of universal basic income has slowly gained support amongst some politicians across the country. Andrew Yang, a current candidate for mayor of New York City and a former presidential candidate, made the concept a key part of his campaign.
Andrew Yang: If you were to put $1000 a month in their hands, they would use it in the most positive and beneficial way possible.
Tanzina: Close to a dozen US mayors are experimenting with some type of income payment to constituents. I'm Tanzina Vega, and breaking down universal basic income amid the pandemic is where we start today on The Takeaway. Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology. Sarah, great to have you with us.
Sarah: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Dr. Amy Castro Baker is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-director of the Center for Guaranteed Income Research. Amy, welcome to the takeaway.
Amy: Thanks for having me,
Tanzina: Sarah, let's start with you. Lots of terms floating around. Let's get a basic explainer, what is the difference between universal basic income and guaranteed income?
Sarah: There are a lot of terms, you're right, floating around to describe the concept that we're talking about, which is money paid monthly, no strings attached, to people in a community. Universal basic income, as you might expect, is paid out to everyone in a country, in a city. A guaranteed basic income follows along the lines of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., who talked about having enough to pay your bills every month.
A lot of cities right now are talking about a guaranteed income to live on from that civil rights legacy of economic justice and move it away from some of the more automation-focused concepts. What we're seeing in a lot of cities right now is that the basic income payments are not universal. They're going specifically to low-income families that need the additional support. That's the key difference that we're seeing right now.
Tanzina: Amy, when we talk about these two philosophies, guaranteed income versus universal basic income, guaranteed, obviously coming with some measures that one has to meet, versus universal, where everybody gets a base payment here. Is there a difference in terms of the benefit of either one of these programs?
Amy: That's a good question. It's hard to say if there's a benefit of one over the other because we haven't had a truly universal basic income experiment yet. I come at it from the perspective of a researcher, and what are the research questions we can answer, and how do we actually generate evidence-based policy around this? It's hard to say. I think the bigger question around universal basic income versus guaranteed income is which one is more politically palatable right now in the United States, number one, and then, number two, figuring out if you're going to actually design it at scale, what would it cost in reality?
Tanzina: Let's talk a little bit about that because this seems to be some-- This isn't new, Amy. I mean, this is something that people have been talking about for decades.
Amy: Correct. No, it's not new at all.
Tanzina: Sarah, how are cities looking to implement these different programs? Are most cities looking at universal basic income, the cities that we know where mayors are really talking about it like Andrew Yang was? Are our cities looking at this where there's interest in doing it and looking at guaranteed income?
Sarah: Dr. Baker talked about that that, right now, all we're really seeing in the United States are these guaranteed income experiments. She was heavily involved with Stockton, California's experiment, which was one of the first and the biggest in the United States, which started with 125 families. The rest of the cities that we're seeing come out, in this model, are focusing on hundreds of families.
Compton, California, will be running one of the largest with 800 families. Hudson, New York is running one with just 25 families. There's a broad range, but most of them focus specifically on very low-income families, either identified through documentation or through their census tract. Some are focusing specifically on populations that have slipped through the cracks, traditionally. In San Francisco, there's a pilot running to focus on Black and Pacific Islander mothers during pregnancy and six months thereafter. We're seeing a range of projects that are really targeted but that honors the basic goal of these projects, which is unconditional cash. Another thing that sets them apart is that they, typically, have a sunset period. A lot of these are-
Tanzina: Well, let me just stop you there, Sarah, because unconditional cash would mean universal, right? That would mean anybody and everybody is eligible for this, but there are conditions for guaranteed basic income.
Sarah: Yes, that's a really good point. I think it's testing the idea of unconditional being there's no-- You don't have to spend the money a specific way as opposed to other welfare programs where you might have to spend it on housing or on food or on specific kind of food. I guess the unconditional is more talking about the lack of strings attached to the cash once you get it.
Tanzina: Interesting. Amy, Sarah just mentioned that the w word right there. I grew up in the '80s and '90s, in a very low-income community, and remember the concept of welfare being something that was demonized in many areas and really stereotyped in very negative ways. Does that transfer to the political will or lack thereof around either one of these programs, Amy, whether it's guaranteed income or universal basic income, particularly, universal basic income?
Amy: That's a good question, and you're right. We have absolutely saddled most safety-net benefits in the United States with a lot of shame and blame and the strong binary between who's deserving and who's undeserving, and the real ethos behind guaranteed income or basic income is saying, "You're deserving because you're human. There's this floor that we will not let you fall beneath because you are a citizen."
I think that there is a new way that people are talking about that idea of deservedness simply because we've reached a breaking point. We have the Great Recession. Most families have not recovered from the loss of wealth during the Great Recession, particularly, homeowners and working-class communities. Then, of course, we have the pandemic on top of that. You have a growing number of families who are working more and making less, and that's basically pushing us away from these ways that we used to talk about things like social safety net, the social contract, into new ways of re-imagining how we want to take care of one another given that the real dire economic strain that most US households are experiencing.
Tanzina: Amy, I want to dig a little deeper there because the concept for a lot of folks of this universal basic income or guaranteed income, it almost feels like it's emerging at a time, as you mentioned, the pandemic and people having not recovered from the Great Recession, but we also know that hourly wages have not kept pace with inflation, and social security is something that a lot of folks are not feeling that they're going to be able to rely on. Do those economic indicators also point towards the need for some cash payment?
Amy: Yes. I mean, from my perspective, without question, is that when we look at people, particularly, millennials, they're the first generation US history to be projected to do worse off than their parents, financially. That's just one quick indicator, but yes, these systems that we have set up for families to be financially stable, achieve some degree of upper mobility are largely crumbling, and it demands a new way of thinking about it. The thing I'd like to say that really differentiates guaranteed income or UBI from some of these other programs like SSI or housing, that type of thing, is the fact that it's flexible.
The other marker of the economy right now, as these other institutions are really under strain, is that what people need really fluctuates from month to month. One month, it might be housing, the next month, it might be food, the next month, it might be needs around transportation or childcare. The idea is if you have cash, cash is flexible, and that can meet the needs of families, which are flexible, but it doesn't necessarily mean that we get rid of all those other programs. The other thing that I'm seeing with these cities that are designing new basic income experiments is they're designing them to work alongside the safety net, not in place of it.
Tanzina: Sarah, we talked a little bit about California, what's happening in LA County, but what about what's happening in Jackson, Mississippi? How is that pilot program working out?
Sarah: You're talking about the Magnolia Mother's Project in Jackson, Mississippi that started a couple of years ago with just 20 women, mothers, and then, it expanded to reach 110 women. Women there were given $1,000 a month, and what they found was that, collectively, the mothers were able to pay off $10,000 in debt, many of them slept better, were less stressed. Again, this was a small project, really, really targeted at a specific community. A lot of women were able to benefit from the project.
Speaking about some of the limitations of projects like these, I know a lot of women were a bit wary of participating in a program like this. In the beginning, worry that it might kick them off of other specific benefits, other welfare benefits, because they could make too much money to qualify. I think that's been a project of a lot of the researchers around universal basic income, to make sure that people know that these aren't replacements for other welfare programs and make sure they can put them into a cocktail of other benefits.
Tanzina: Amy, there's wavering support, and I'm curious to hear your thoughts on political support for either of these. We know Andrew Yang, in particular, and mayors across the country have made some efforts to do this, but I'm curious about Americans, what they think about this? We know that, for example, $1,400 stimulus checks have definitely gotten many Americans on board with that idea for the pandemic as a one-time payment, but they seem to be mixed on whether or not we should have some universal basic income or guaranteed income. What are your thoughts on that?
Amy: The pandemic has definitely created this shift where we see changes in polling on both the right and the left around palatability for cash. The question is how and why. When it comes to basic income, it's one of those things that it's so rare but it garnered support from both the right and the left. I think that there is a tremendous opportunity for bipartisan support. It is one of the few ideas that I've ever worked on in the social policy space where I have people interested on both sides of the political aisle. Now, how you can- [crosstalk]
Tanzina: Why is that, I suppose? Why is that?
Amy: Why is it? [chuckles]
Tanzina: Poverty cuts across for all Americans, isn't that right?
Amy: Yes, poverty cuts across both sides, but I think there's the motivation for it for two different reasons. From my perspective, what I see on the left is it tends to be part of the way that people view economic justice, addressing structural injustice in the market. On the right, it tends to be more ideas around efficiency and also not wanting the government to be involved in means-tested benefits. There's obviously wiggle room on both those sides, but on the left, it tends to be more about structural inequality, and on the right, it tends to be more thinking around the lines of, how can we make government function better with less strings and less bureaucracy?
Tanzina: We're going to have to leave it there. Dr. Amy, Castro Baker is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab. Sarah and Amy, thanks to you both.
Sarah: Thanks so much.
Amy: Thanks for having us.
Tanzina: Okay, your turn. What do you think about universal basic income?
Caller 1: My worry is that a universal basic income or even a city-based basic income would simply be a band-aid approach to income inequality without addressing the outrageous inflation of costs for things like housing, healthcare, and education that really contribute to income inequality. Without a way of getting away from privatized healthcare and education, for example, the income would simply create an underclass of people who would still have no access to any form of social mobility.
Tanzina: More of your calls coming up later in the show. We've been talking about the push for guaranteed and universal basic income in the United States and what the COVID-19 pandemic has meant for its popularity. The current wave of popularity has been spurred by a two-year pilot program launched in Stockton, California in February 2019. Michael Tubbs, former mayor of Stockton, California, gained national attention for the program, and though he's since been voted out of office, he's still leading the charge on the issue as the founder of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. Michael, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Tanzina: Why did you start the program?
Michael: I started the program because I think poverty is immoral, and as mayor, all the issues we talked about in Stockton from homelessness, to educational attainment, to violent crime, where the symptoms of the issue was intractable poverty. When we had about a fourth of residents living in poverty, about another half, one paycheck away, just seemed to me that, as mayor, one of the most important things we could do was to figure out how do we really solve poverty, and then we'll see changes in all these other issues.
Tanzina: Tell me how your program actually worked. Was it guaranteed income? Was it universal basic income? Who was it meant to serve?
Michael: It was a guaranteed income demonstration only because we did not have the resources to provide a basic income to every single person who lived in Stockton. What we did, and I think Dr. Amy was on before me, is that we found a way to make it so that up to 75% of the city qualified, as close to universal as possible by using census tract data. From that pool of 75% of Stockton residents, we were able to get down to 125 who represent the city in age, in diversity, in employment status, and in income.
Tanzina: What were the effects that you saw that came from that program?
Michael: The effects are actually coming out next month, and Dr. Amy would kill me if I revealed the little that I know. I want to say, in terms of what's publicly available, we saw that people spend money the way you and I spend money. People spent money on food, and then utilities, and increasingly so during COVID-19. Then, there's also a couple of stories from some folks in the program that really highlight the agency that guaranteed the income gives people.
White young men, Tomas, talked about how he took the $500 the first month to interview for a new job. When he first told me that, I thought, "Why would you pay the interview?" He said, "No, I don't get paid time off. I work hourly. For me to take time off of work to interview for a better job, would mean losing a couple of hundred dollars. We live paycheck to paycheck so I can't afford to do that. With the $500, I was able to do that, and now, I have a better job."
Then, during COVID-19, a woman named Zané told me how before, because of the lack of federal response, we didn't have testing set up, that she was able to stay home when she had a cough and a fever instead of going to work because she knew that the $500 was coming to help her mitigate any loss of income from following public health directives, and in doing so, saved lives by not infecting others because it turned out that she did, in fact, have COVID-19.
Tanzina: Wow. Where does the money come from for this? Is it from the local tax base, or does it come from other sources?
Michael: In our pilot, because we were doing these in-- We had talked about this in 2017, we launched 2019, and literally, no one else in this country was doing it, so we were able to raise philanthropic dollars, notably, from the Economic Security Project and its co-founder and co-chair, Chris Hughes, and other foundations, to pay for the research.
What we've seen in Mayors for a Guaranteed Income is, now, mayors are using CARES Act dollars and private dollars. Notably, I think Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul and his leadership with the People's Prosperity Pilot, where they're using CARES Act dollars, actually got into it with his congresswoman about the use of CARES Act dollars, [unintelligible 00:16:57] philanthropic dollars to make sure people have their needs met during this time.
Even in Stockton, we were able to do one-time direct cash payments to people who lost their income to the COVID using public dollars. It's been amazing to see how the conversation has shifted from it being privately funded to folks using public dollars to invest directly in the people who make the public dollars possible.
Tanzina: I was just going to ask you about the funding. It can be great to have philanthropic dollars but those dollars can dry up depending on which way things are headed, so they're not necessarily the most stable, is there any thought about restructuring taxes so that wealthier Americans might be putting in dollars towards their surrounding communities perhaps, or is that just too far to think about?
Michael: Absolutely, they should, particularly, when we know that the richest among us are 40% richer during this pandemic while other people are laid off and unemployed.
Tanzina: There are people, Michael, as you know, that would argue that they deserve to be there, "they worked really hard," and the taxes is a really sensitive issue, as you know.
Michael: Yes, absolutely. I think that the hardest working people I know are the essential workers, are the nurses, are the migrant field workers, are the parents, mothers, who are doing school teaching via Zoom at home, while trying to work, while taking care of domestic work. Folks will have a conversation about how hard they work and rewarded on wages. I think that's why I'm really in favor of a guaranteed income. There's actually bills in Congress even before this pandemic. Now, Vice-president Kamala Harris had a bill that will reverse the $2 trillion in Trump tax cuts, and in doing so, will provide $500 a month to every American family making $125,000 or less, as a form of EITC expansion. Vice-president Harris-
Tanzina: That would be the earned income tax credit.
Michael: -Senator Sanders, Senator Markey had a bill right now in Congress that speaks to $2,000 a month in COVID stimulus payments. We have a bunch of house of representatives from Rep. Lee, to Rep. Omar, to Rep. Ryan, Rep. Carter, and others who have bills talking about reforming the tax code to provide an income floor for all people. There's actually, literally, legislation now that can be enacted to get us there. I think now it's just a question of continuing to build political will.
Tanzina: Do you suspect that political will happen?
Michael: I'm going to work as hard as I can with others to make it happen. We'll see.
Tanzina: Michael Tubbs is the former mayor of Stockton, California, and the founder of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. Michael, thanks for joining us.
Michael: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: We've been looking this hour at the momentum around policies like universal basic income and guaranteed income, which involve direct cash payments from government agencies to constituents. Last summer, polling from the Pew Research Center found that a little more than half of the people in the United States are opposed to the idea of universal basic income at the federal level while about 45% support the policy. We wanted to hear from you on this and whether you support a universal basic income.
Alejandro: This is Alejandro in San Diego, I support UBI because our means of production has gotten more efficient through the outsourcing, automation, and economies of scale. These efficiencies have led to corporations and a handful of ultra-wealthy individuals holding onto a larger proportion of our nation's wealth, in effect, keeping money out of the economy. Even as a self-proclaimed capitalist, I must acknowledge the harms increased concentration of wealth has on people. UBI can serve as a counter to this.
Preston: This is Preston in Dallas, Texas. Universal basic income is worth pursuing. Give people the ability to get what they need and they will work to get what they want. Hard to pursue happiness if you're desperate.
Barbara: This is Barbara in San Jose. Guaranteed incomes sounds like a band-aid for a wound that will never heal. Let's tap innovators to identify new kinds of jobs. Jobs give people pride and self-sufficiency, not handouts.
Betty: My name is Betty, and I'm calling from Manhattan. I support universal basic income because I think of it as an investment in our community. For practical reason, I think that it would end up actually saving taxpayer dollars. I also think it would be a beneficial thing for us to destigmatize government aid.
Cheryl: This is Cheryl from Arlington, Texas. While it would be nice to be guaranteed an income. I have to keep asking, "Who's going to pay for this, and how far along the road to socialism or communism are we willing to go when we live in a democracy?" If people want a guaranteed income, I would suggest they get themselves an education and a job. Let me also add that we currently have a guaranteed income for those in need. It's called welfare.
Dan: This is Dan in Longmont, Colorado. I think that having a universal basic income is the only logical way for us to move forward. A lot of times, our capitalist system relies on inefficiencies, and we're going to come to a reckoning here where we're going to have a society where lots of people are unemployed or unable to be employed because there's just not the demand. We need to move beyond a system that demands that people have jobs to support themselves with healthcare, to support their families, and to put food on the table.
Ray: This is Ray from Denver, Colorado. I don't agree with or support the policy of universal basic or guaranteed income simply because I don't believe that the policy is rooted in sound economic thought. My belief is that you would just reset a baseline. You would see large amounts of inflation, and before long, everyone would be back to right where they started. I think a better solution is to figure out how to increase jobs, keep people working, and give them good, meaningful work.
Doris Lynn: Hi, I'm Doris Lynn in Freehold, New Jersey. We need universal basic income or some kind of guaranteed income because as technology advances, we will have more and more jobs being done by computers and machines that were previously done by people. This will have the effect of concentrating wealth in smaller numbers of people while the masses are unemployed or underemployed.
Tanzina: Thank you as always for weighing in. You can keep sharing your thoughts with us on a universal basic income and guaranteed income by recording a voice memo and sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can go to thetakeaway.org and click on contact us to record your answers straight into your computer or phone.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.