For seven months, starting last fall, Mia Birdsong traveled to cities across the country to find out how people struggling to make ends meet would use an unconditional cash infusion, or Universal Basic Income (UBI). Their answers, she found, were surprisingly unsurprising: A reliable car to shave 90 minutes off a daily commute; a years-overdue visit to family just across the state line; a football uniform for a child hoping to try out for the school team; a couple of 20-dollar bills in the sock drawer—for emergencies only.
“The things that people would want out of a Universal Basic Income shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone,” says Birdsong, a senior fellow of the Economic Security Project and a Fellow with New America’s Family-Centered Social Policy program. “They care about the same things that everybody cares about: home ownership, their children’s education, their own education. They would use the money to make sure that their extended families and communities are okay.” Such findings point towards a long-proven conclusion among social scientists: The ripple effects of direct cash transfers extend far wider than in-kind transfers, which end when the food stamps have run out, or when the housing voucher has been cashed in.
Different versions of Universal Basic Income have found supporters across centuries, continents, and political spectrums. Advocates on the left argue that, in addition to providing a necessary safety net for the millions of Americans in poverty, UBI would improve the bargaining power of low-wage workers and reduce the patronizing interference and stigma often associated with government assistance. And now, with some 80 percent of full-time workers reporting that they live paycheck to paycheck and few accessing welfare, a renewed wave of interest is growing. With millions of jobs hanging by a thread stretched thinner and thinner by increased automation, UBI appears to many as an appropriately radical solution, especially in the cities in closest proximity to automation’s pull.
About an hour and a half northeast of Silicon Valley, the small city of Stockton, California, still hasn’t recovered from the financial crisis. Many homes remain in foreclosure, and unemployment—which peaked at 19 percent in early 2011—remains among the highest in the country. When Mayor Michael Tubbs took office in 2017, the then-26-year-old pledged to bring new jobs and opportunities to the city’s poor, who at the time made up about a quarter of the population. “I grew up in a working-class, working-poor family. My mom was on welfare for the first seven years of my life,” Mayor Tubbs says. “Issues of economic security are personal to me, and it’s important to use my platform to talk about the plight of the majority of people in our country who are really struggling.”