Could a Universal Basic Income Become a Political Reality?

Could a Universal Basic Income Become a Political Reality?

Could a Universal Basic Income Become a Political Reality?

New polling suggests Americans are open to bold, progressive ideas.


Universal Basic Income—the idea that the government should provide every person a monthly cash allowance—has long been relegated to the realm of utopia. Even with its recent resurgence, driven in part by self-interested Silicon Valley CEOs, many still assume UBI is too expensive, too radical, and absolutely politically infeasible. In a country that restricts poor people from using food stamps for hot foods and subjects welfare recipients to drug tests, it’s hard to imagine widespread support for giving people cash, no strings attached.

But recent polling by the progressive think tank Data for Progress and YouGov Blue indicates that UBI might not be so politically far-fetched. The group conducted a survey asking over 1,500 nationally representative respondents whether they would support or oppose a policy that gave every American a monthly $1,000 check, which would be paid for by raising taxes on individuals earning more than $150,000.

The overall net response was negative 2 percent (38 percent somewhat or strongly supporting the idea versus 40 percent somewhat or strongly opposing it). But even when combined with a tax hike, giving every American $12,000 per year is significantly more popular than the Republican tax bill and polls about same as the Affordable Care Act in the year that it was passed.

Perhaps most telling is the split in opinion about UBI between working-class and wealthy Americans. For those with an annual income between $10,000 and $30,000, 47 percent support the policy, versus 24 percent who are opposed; not surprisingly, for those making more than $100,000, support drops to 27 percent, versus 59 percent opposed.

Broken down by race, black respondents support the policy by an overwhelming net 29 points; support among Latino respondents is lower, but still at a net six points. And, while white respondents overall oppose the policy, this is driven mainly by wealthy white people. The white working class (those making between $10,000 and $60,000) support UBI by a net nine points, while higher-income white respondents (those making more than $60,000) oppose the policy by a net negative 23 points—more than a 30-point difference. A similar disparity holds between lower-educated and highly educated white respondents.

To be sure, none of this has been subject to national-level debates. It’s easy to see support dropping for UBI if the policy came under Republican attacks—after all, conservatives have long employed racist dog whistles to undermine welfare programs. But the fact holds that most beneficiaries of social services are white members of the working class and, at least at the baseline, the polling shows that the working class—across racial lines—supports the idea of a basic income. It’s possible that such big redistributive ideas could eventually catch on, even in places like the Midwest where we’re often told that socialism can never take root.

It’s also noteworthy that the policy found margins of support despite the fact that it proposed raising taxes on a huge segment of Americans. Over the past few weeks, since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat longtime New York Representative Joe Crowley by running on an unapologetically democratic-socialist platform, we’ve seen the inevitable How Will We Pay For It?™ question emerge in backlash to her policies. Conservative news outlets like Fox News and The Daily Caller have brought it up repeatedly, saying that Ocasio-Cortez “doesn’t know anything about economics,” a line of attack that has been abetted by Democrats who question Ocasio-Cortez’s experience and qualifications, often with a sexist tinge.

But pay-for fearmongering is a political tactic masquerading as a policy question. As many have pointed out, conservatives don’t get up in arms when passing a spending bill that raises annual defense spending to $700 billion or enacting a $1.5 trillion tax cut for the wealthy. Nor does anyone make a fuss about the downside of not investing in policies for the poor, such as the fact that our country’s high child-poverty rate is estimated to cost us $500 billion every year. As Jack Holmes writes in Esquire, the question is “just rhetoric, but where it’s deployed indicates where a person’s priorities lie.”

Yet asking “how we pay for it” may not even be as effective a political attack as conservatives think. Three-quarters of Americans support raising taxes on the wealthy; at least an equal number of people think we spend too much on the military as think we spend too little. And despite a constant barrage of bad-faith journalism that highlights the cost of policies like Medicare for All while burying the enormous savings, support for universal health care has been growing.

The Democratic Party has often written off good policy as too expensive and improbable. But if the most “radical” ideas on the left like a UBI aren’t political nonstarters, even when they include large tax increases, then Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to explore other big, nontraditional policy ideas. Progressive challengers like Ocasio-Cortez have already sounded the charge, endorsing policies like a jobs guarantee, the abolition of ICE, and transition to a 100 percent renewable-energy system. Other leftist insurgents are also thinking of big out-of-the box ideas, like Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed’s plan for a public option for the Internet.

There’s no question that some form of cash benefit is desperately needed in the United States. Cash welfare, currently in the form of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, has been decimated over the past few decades, and now reaches very few families. In 1996, 68 of every 100 poor families were receiving cash assistance from the program; by 2016 that number had fallen to 23 of every 100 poor families. Our system of refundable tax credits, like the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit, are available only to those with an earned income, leaving out the poorest families, and they also come just once a year, at tax time. Food stamps are highly restrictive and can’t be used for other necessary expenses like gas or toilet paper.

The lack of cash welfare is a driving reason the United States has a stubbornly high child-poverty rate in comparison to its high-income peers. Extreme poverty, or the number of those living on less than $2 per person, per day, has more than doubled by 2011 since President Bill Clinton gutted welfare in 1996. In contrast, during roughly the same time period, Britain significantly increased the amount of its universal child allowance (alongside other policies supporting children) and cut its child-poverty rates by half.

Yet during the 2016 primary Bernie Sanders shied away from these sorts of big ideas when it came to welfare. His oft-repeated line that “nobody who works 40 hours a week should live in poverty” left unchallenged the conservative framework that some poor people—those who work—were more deserving than others. Even Ocasio-Cortez’s platform doesn’t mention anything about cash welfare or welfare reform (aside from an expansion of Social Security benefits).

This isn’t to say that Democrats need to suddenly adopt UBI as some sort of silver-bullet solution. An option that would likely be even more palatable among the general public would be a child allowance, or giving parents a monthly or weekly cash benefit for each child in their household, a policy that is already widely adopted in most European countries.

Either way, some sort of cash welfare should be part of the progressive agenda, not in small part because it would help blow up the racist idea that benefits should be tied to work and finally kill Reagan’s welfare-queen myth. As the polling shows, even the most radically progressive proposals are not the political death sentences that critics would have you believe. Utopian ideas don’t seem so absurd when you’re trying to survive at the bottom of the ladder.

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