A Progressive Universal Basic Income

We have an immense amount of wealth in the United States. Our GDP has grown by $4 trillion over the last 15 years. We have enough homes to house everyone and enough food to feed everyone. We have an abundance of resources at our disposal — and yet our political thinking remains mired in an austerity mindset.

Those of us who support universal basic income generally recognize that status quo thinking is one of our biggest obstacles. If your point of view is locked into today’s political perspectives, and you see incremental policy adjustments as the only path forward, something as radical as basic income seems hopelessly pie in the sky. But even basic income supporters often maintain today’s austerity mindset when designing policy, compromising and contorting their implementation to fit inside a particular fiscal box.

We instead approach basic income from the perspective of abundance and aim to accomplish two core goals: establishing a minimum standard of living as a fundamental human right for all people; and ensuring no one is left worse off by the policy. To that end, we imagine an uncompromised and truly universal progressive implementation of basic income that strengthens and supports our social safety net.

Generally, any conversation on the design of universal basic income starts with the question “what programs can we cut?” We take the opposite approach — keep all existing safety net programs in place, with money received from basic income exempt from consideration when qualifying for these benefits. Rather than attempting to predict in advance which programs might or might not be redundant and risk leaving some people worse off, we should wait until we enact basic income — at that point, we can empirically assess whether certain programs are no longer necessary, and scale them back then. The one exception would be social security, where monthly payments would be supplemented to bring everyone up to a basic income level, rather than just adding basic income on top of existing payments.

A core requirement of our approach to basic income is that it must be truly universal: citizens, permanent residents, and those in the US on a work or student visa would all receive full payments. Even undocumented immigrants would be eligible to receive basic income, although not until they had been residents for at least three years. For fulfilling basic needs to become a fundamental human right, it’s critical that we not leave anyone behind.

Children would eligible to receive full benefits as well, although payments would be handled differently — 50% of the monthly amount would go to the parent(s), and the other 50% would go into a government bond Child Trust Account. These deposits would accumulate over time and become available as a lump sum on an individual’s eighteenth birthday. This would be analogous to a “baby bond” and would serve to build wealth for the next generation.

The initial amount given through basic income should be high enough to bring people above the federal poverty line — $12,000 going to every person each year. However, going forward, the amount would be pegged to GDP, rather than inflation. This would allow all residents of the country to share in the country’s prosperity, with increasing national wealth translating directly into higher dividends. We could fully fund this approach through a combination of increased income, capital gains, and corporate taxes, supplemented by “helicopter money” directly created and issued by the federal government.

We live in the richest nation in the history of the world and have the wealth to provide all residents with a minimum standard of living. We can and should establish a basic income as a fundamental human right.

This is the fifth piece in a series of pitches written for the Economic Security Project’s first design workshop on basic income held last spring. We are sharing these pieces in the lead up to the Economic Security Project’s first ever Cash Conference on Thursday October 19th in San Francisco. RSVP to attend here.

The Economic Security Project challenges the status quo by catalyzing ideas that build economic power for all Americans.

The Economic Security Project challenges the status quo by catalyzing ideas that build economic power for all Americans.