This is the first episode in a new podcast mini-series from me, Mia Birdsong, and The Nation. More Than Enough is about guaranteed income, deservedness, dignity, and the country America can and should be. We hope you’ll subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app. New episodes will premiere each Wednesday. But first, a bit about how this podcast came about.
A few years ago, I found myself in a sun-lit conference room full of policy makers, academics, and social justice advocates talking about what a guaranteed income policy might look like. After more than two decades doing intersectional social justice work, much of it advocating for giving cash directly to people who experience economic injustice, I was excited by the conversation.
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard about guaranteed income. You’ve probably heard about it by now, too—everyone from Silicon Valley titans to presidential hopefuls are talking about guaranteed income (also called universal basic income) as a way to deal with increasing automation and runaway inequality. I first heard about the concept in college in the mid-90s through the 1967 writings of Martin Luther King Jr. In the year before King was assassinated, he wrote “the time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty” by providing a basic level of material well-being to allow all Americans to truly flourish. To be honest, when I first read that, I thought it sounded ridiculous. Free money went against everything I’d learned about being a respectable citizen. But people change and our ideas evolve. I no longer think guaranteed income is absurd.
When it comes to economic injustice in the United States, we have a well-established practice of talking about people who are poor but not listening to them. We try to solve the problem without talking to the people closest to it. As a result, we’ve created a lot of bad policy that treats poor people as a problem to solve instead of the holders of the solutions. (The actual problem to solve is wealth hoarding.) Back at that conference a few years ago, I was thrilled about the genuine interest in implementing guaranteed income, with its underlying ethos of self-determination and trusting people to do what is best for them. But I was wary of any movement that didn’t include the voices and leadership of the people it was meant to support. So I brought up this critical omission. Instead of being challenged, as I often am, heads were nodding, and I was asked to do something about it. So I did. This podcast is the result.
I reached out to activists, advocates, and service providers across the country to set up workshops with groups of people who are living at the shit end of all our collective money distribution problem. I went to six cities—from Jackson, Mississippi, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Los Angeles, California, and heard from more than 100 people. I did a dozen phone interviews with advocates like Ai-Jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Aisha Nyandoro of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, and Anand Giridharadas, writer of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.
The stories were overwhelmingly powerful—partly because of how unnecessarily traumatic and difficult economic injustice has made people’s lives, but also because of how innovative, determined, and collaborative people are when it comes to surviving and imagining a better future for themselves, their families, and their communities. When it came to the idea of guaranteed income, what I heard was an overwhelming “yes.” There was a wide range of things people said about the difference it would make in their lives, and none of it was surprising.
A woman in Jackson said she’d go on vacation for the first time in 10 years. That vacation would be driving with her kids two states over to Georgia to visit family her children had never met. A mother from Los Angeles said she’d pay the legal fees necessary to help her parents emigrate to the United States. A young man from San Francisco would help his sisters out with diapers and clothes for his nieces and nephews. People talked about paying off debt, going back to school, working less so they could spend more time with their kids, caring for aging parents, saving for a house, buying a car, starting businesses, and taking their family to Disney World. It was all of the regular things people do when they don’t have to worry so much about money.
As I was having these conversations, I was also talking about guaranteed income to a lot of audiences at conferences and seminars (this is what happens when you become one of, like, four black people publicly talking about guaranteed income). Most of these audiences were liberal or progressive. And I was struck by the two main concerns that often came up.
The first is best summed up as, “But, how can we pay for it?” That’s not really the question people are asking though. We are the wealthiest nation in the world. The question isn’t, can we pay for it? But, do we want to? This question is really about who we fundamentally want to be as a nation. Do we want to ensure that everyone has access to the basic human rights that cash can enable? Or do we want to continue to be a country where people are saddled with medical and education debt, working multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet, and living on the street because the rent’s to damn high?
The second question was, “But what about X other important super thing (like education or health care)?” And I kept thinking, Why do we think we have to choose? People on the left keep behaving as if we are sitting at someone else’s table. And we compromise before we even get there. I get it, there are so many pieces that need to come together to get us to the future we actually want and every one will require a fight. But I think we need to demand more, not less. I’m so pleased to see candidates like Warren, Sanders, and Castro, when he was still in the race advocating for multiple bold policies. We deserve all of it! (Yes, the candidate who is actually talking about guaranteed income, Andrew Yang, is missing from my list. This is because his plan would gut welfare benefits and I think that’s a non-starter for any genuinely progressive guaranteed income proposal. As you’ll hear in the podcast, there are strange bedfellows in the guaranteed income world.)
Guaranteed income isn’t a silver bullet (and let’s stop looking for silver bullets, because there are none). But I think it’s a policy worth exploring. Perhaps even more importantly, it invites us to have a long overdue conversation about deservedness.
Capitalism conspires with racism and sexism to tell us that personhood is earned through paid labor. It tells us that our humanity is conditional. It says we have to prove ourselves worthy of basic human rights like shelter, food, education, and health care. It has us taking pride in working later and not getting enough sleep because demonstrating “productivity” is one of its highest virtues. We believe that hard work equals success. We accept the idea that people who aren’t successful must not be working hard enough. If they are not working hard enough they are not proving that they are deserving.
It’s utter nonsense that people who are poor are not working hard—in the podcast you’ll hear from people working multiple jobs, people working exhausting shifts, all just to keep food on the table for themselves and their families . But that’s not even the point. The point is, we do not have to earn our human rights. A total slacker is just as deserving of a roof over their head, food in their bellies, and access to schools and health care.
We need a new story of what America is that tells us this: Our worthiness, our value as human beings, is intrinsic to our very existence. It’s not something we have to earn and not something we can un-earn. We need a story that says success is a collective endeavor, that connection and care are the values we should use to measure our achievements. We need a story that starts with the assertion that there is more than enough for all of us.
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Guaranteed Income Research Round-up from the Economic Security Project
Mia Birdsong’s TED Talk “The Story We Tell About Poverty Isn’t True”
The Insight Center’s Report on Exploring Guaranteed Income Through A Racial And Gender Justice Lens
More Than Enough was developed by Next River Productions. Created and hosted by Mia Birdsong. Audio engineering and music by Nino Moschella. Script development and production by Allison Cook. The content of this podcast was informed by the stories of hundreds of people across the country, only some of whom you heard from. Thank you to everyone who took the time to speak with me and share their story.
Support for the production of More Than Enough was provided by a few generous folks and the Economic Security Project, an organization advancing cash-based interventions in the United States and reigning in corporate monopolies.
More Than Enough is a project of The Nation Magazine.
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Jillian Johnson: When I first heard about UBI, I was so excited about the simplicity of the idea. People don’t have enough money, let’s give them money. Actually having a universal basic income in this country would require restructuring our entire economy and our entire economic system to make that work. It’s a massive wealth redistribution, and the only way that happens is if you actually change your tax structure. There’s no way to have UBI and not have more of a social democracy.
Mia Birdsong: That was Jillian Johnson, the former mayor of Durham, North Carolina. She is one of the many people across the country that I spoke with about guaranteed income. But let me back up.
A few years ago I was invited to participate in a small day-long convening of policy-makers, academics, and others to talk about guaranteed income, also known as universal basic income or UBI. The conversations were dynamic and wide-ranging, and I was fascinated because I didn’t know much about guaranteed income. Here was a group of people coming together to figure out how to solve the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in our society.
But the more conversations I had that day, the more it became very clear that a common mistake was being made. Well-meaning people were talking about guaranteed income as a potential remedy for income inequality, but there was no one in the room who was currently experiencing poverty. That’s not too different from the national conversation about guaranteed income, where the voices of people experiencing economic injustice are largely absent. This podcast is my attempt to change that.
Over the course of a year, I traveled across the country talking with people about guaranteed income. I held workshops and had conversations in places like Stockton, California; Jackson, Mississippi; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. These conversations about guaranteed income were mostly with people who are struggling to make ends meet and economic justice advocates. In community centers, crowded nonprofit offices, and people’s living rooms, the conversations I had sounded like this.
Interviewee: You’re trying to figure out, how you going do this, and how you going do that? So what if I don’t have the money to go to that basketball game, or that football game, or something? That child needs to look up in the stands and see his mama and daddy, or somebody in the family saying, “Go, do your best,” though. You know, rooting for them and stuff, and…
Interviewee: I would love to have a house.
Interviewee: I never just was able to get up and go to school. I had to worry about where my food was coming from, or…
Interviewee: It’s been hard on me, trying to find suitable housing.
Interviewee: And I’m always just like two inches away from slipping up, you know?
Mia Birdsong: Years of working on economic and family justice have taught me that you simply cannot solve a problem without including the voices, leadership, and wisdom of the people closest to that problem. Guaranteed income is no exception. The conversation about guaranteed income, both in that room and nationally, has been happening without those who would be most impacted by it, people who are poor. So I decided to begin addressing that omission myself.
I traveled around the country talking about guaranteed income with folks who would actually benefit the most from the policy. In rooms with exuberant children, and in the back seats of cars, the subject of guaranteed income sparked conversations on everything from deservedness to dreams. My hope is that these few episodes help move us into some of the underexplored parts of the conversation about guaranteed income, while bringing in the perspectives of people who are struggling to make ends meet.
What got me interested in talking about guaranteed income was its potential to be part of the solution to economic inequality. I think it’s a policy worth exploring, but what’s kept me engaged is the conversation it invites us to have. A conversation about deservedness, the meaning of work, dignity, and what America can and should be.
I’m Mia Birdsong, and this is More Than Enough.
In this episode, the first of a four-part series, we’re going to talk about what guaranteed income is and some of its history as an idea promoted by racial and economic justice movements. We’ll get some context for why guaranteed income, as a policy idea and as a provocation, is important as we confront the moral implications of continued and increasing economic inequality. I’m going to start with some level-setting, just so we’re on the same page.
Dorian Warren: The guaranteed income idea essentially advances that notion that every single person has dignity, and is guaranteed basic necessities by virtue of birth. You get it by virtue of living in the United States, you are guaranteed it. It’s an income floor so that everyone has the basic necessities to live. And then of course people can do other things, in terms of wanting to thrive in this society and in this economy.
Mia Birdsong: That was Dorian Warren, president of the Center for Community Change. As he explains, guaranteed income is the idea that everyone would get some no-strings-attached money from the government to use as they wish. Even though this idea has been around for a long time, it’s experiencing a kind of resurgence. But the public conversation about guaranteed income sounds kind of like this.
Newscasters: New worries about robots taking jobs…
If machine mind-readers don’t scare you enough, this might. The odds are that you’re just a few years away from losing your job, not to somebody younger or cheaper than you, but to one of these. Robots, which are getting smarter and better a lot faster than anybody thought.
The robots are laughing. They are coming to take your job.
Mia Birdsong: So much of the current conversation about guaranteed income has been spurred by fears of how mechanization is impacting paid work and increasing income inequality. In response, many in the tech sector have started advocating for guaranteed income. Folks like Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk have all touted guaranteed income as a possible fix. While it’s always nice when the wealth hoarders pay attention to income inequality, I’m also skeptical of the people who contribute to, and benefit from, income inequality being the ones to design the solution. And I’m not alone. Here’s journalist Anand Giridharadas on the dangers of billionaire saviors.
Anand Giridharadas: We used to need the government to solve collective problems, but now we live in a new, more complicated era in which the private sector is better positioned to do that. And therefore it is in the interests of the poor and forgotten to have rich people make as much money as they can, succeed as wildly as they can, because that puts rich people in a position to help as much as possible.
Of course, what this story ignores is that rich people are the reason government has become incapable. They have fought very hard, over the last 30 to 40 years, to argue for a government that could do less and less. And then, seeing that government do less and less because their revolution succeeded, they use the fact that the government is less capable as a pretext to justify their stepping in and solving public problems.
But of course when the rich step in and solve public problems, they bring their own biases and interests to that problem-solving. And they generally avoid forms of public problem-solving that would threaten their own interests. When the rich get a seat on the board of social change, they also gain a veto over forms of social change that threaten them.
Mia Birdsong: The other frustrating thing about the tech-focused tenor of the conversation about guaranteed income is that it’s ahistorical. The idea has a long lineage.
Here’s Dorian Warren again, talking about the very black roots of guaranteed income.
Dorian Warren: There were many black organizations and organizers who were advocating around the notion of economic justice and economic democracy for black Americans during the New Deal, and in New Deal policies where black folks were excluded. There’s this longstanding tradition around, frankly, racial capitalism, and what that means in terms of black people in America. And then, what are the solutions and the strategies to transform economic exploitation in black communities?
In the ’60s, with the Black Panther party Ten-Point Platform in October of ’66, where one of the planks in that platform is around guaranteed jobs and guaranteed income. And then in ’67 Dr. King starts speaking about this and writing about it in public lectures, and Chaos or Community, Where Do We Go from Here, where he comes out forcefully in favor of a guaranteed income.
Martin Luther King Jr.: In a state of society where want is abolished, the dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.
Now, our country can do this. John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about $20 billion a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend $35 billion a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and $20 billion to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on Earth.
Mia Birdsong: In addition to Dr. King and the Panthers, the National Welfare Rights Organization was also advocating for a version of guaranteed income. They were a group of activist welfare recipients who fought for dignity and system reform. They wanted, quote, “decent jobs with adequate wages for those who can work, and adequate income for those who cannot work.”
The writing of Dr. King is where I got introduced to the idea of guaranteed income. I was in my first year at Oberlin College, and it was the mid-’90s. I had come to the small private liberal arts college in Ohio at a time when race and gender studies were booming. For the first time in my life, I was learning black history way beyond Martin and Rosa. I was introduced to Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality framework, and reading bell hooks. I was in a Black Studies class, and we were discussing King’s perspective on economic justice.
In his final book, King wrote, “I’m now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective. The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure, the guaranteed income.” I heard this, and I thought, “That is absurd.” Part of why I scoffed at the idea of guaranteed income has to do with how I’d gotten to where I was. I came to college from Rochester, New York, where I’d been raised by my mom. We were working class when I was growing up. I always was aware that money was tight. I got a lot of my clothes from Goodwill until I got my first job at 13.
From elementary school on, I was bused with a handful of other black kids to a mostly white school in the suburbs. Like so many kids who were told they benefited from affirmative action, I had been instilled with the belief that my responsibility was to get an education, which would lead to a career, which was essential to the role I was meant to fulfill as a credit to my race. Free money went against everything I’d learned about being a respectable citizen, but people change and our ideas evolve. I no longer wear steel-toed Doc Martens and suspenders, I generally don’t give a shit about respectability, and I no longer think guaranteed income is absurd.
I’ve been doing economic justice work for a long time, focusing on the voices and perspectives of those who experience poverty as a critical source of solutions to economic injustice. I’ve worked at local nonprofits and national think tanks. My focus is less on the policies that we need to put in place, and the laws we need to change, and more on the deeper cultural narratives that animate those policies. I’ve become a lot more focused on rewriting the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are, and what we deserve.
In 2015, I did a TED Talk called “The Story We Tell About Poverty Isn’t True.” In that talk, and in my work, I was trying to help create a new narrative about people who are poor by sharing their stories of hard work and sacrifice. Stories that showcase a certain kind of dignity that aligns with an American brand of work ethic. But now I’m questioning that approach too, because it creates a setup that positions poor people’s worthiness as dependent on them demonstrating that they work hard.
While it’s true that most people who are poor work hard, I also believe that requiring people to prove that they are worthy is a slippery slope. We are born into this world deserving. We are worthy of basic human rights like food, shelter, access to information, health care, and love, just because we exist. But most of us don’t believe that. Research that the Insight Center For Community Economic Development did on how we think about power, economics, and race painfully backs this up. They found that most of us believe that having a paid job is what makes you a whole person. Here’s Dorian Warren, challenging us to rethink that idea.
Dorian Warren: But I really am excited by the notion that it decouples work from deservedness. And I think that’s one of the long-term challenges in American politics, where we have social policy that’s extraordinarily racialized and gendered, so that some people think they deserve it and other people don’t. Decoupling the notion of work from getting any kind of benefits from the government, I think is really, really important.
Mia Birdsong: We have a long way to go when it comes to recognizing people’s inherent dignity, and decoupling deservedness from work. But one of the ways we do that is by listening and trusting people, especially when we’re trying to find solutions to problems that impact their lives directly. Take, for example, this woman in Jackson, Mississippi who I spoke with as part of my listening tour. She tells us what she would want policymakers to know about how challenging it is to get by.
Interviewee: And actually show them, this is what I got to work with. And this is what I do from this, this, then I have to make this exception to not do this, because I don’t have the funds for this. To actually just let them walk through someone’s life to see, we have to make things stretch until we are able to do this and to do that. Just letting them see, this is just really hard, you know? But listening to someone talk, they listen but they don’t understand.
Mia Birdsong: I set out to make this podcast to include more people in the guaranteed income conversation. Though white people are the majority of poor people in the United States, economic injustice conspires with racism and sexism to disproportionately harm women of color. So I focused on listening to black and brown women, but to be clear, this podcast is just the beginning.
There are a lot of voices to include in this conversation. We need to hear from unhoused people, people with disabilities, sex workers, people in prison, mentally ill people, and immigrants of color. Indigenous people in particular have a wide body of knowledge that we should be learning from. Many tribes have experience with per capita, a structure with similarities to guaranteed income. Here is researcher Thomas Klem:
Thomas Klem: So my name’s Tom, I’m Turtle Clan, I’m Potawatomi. Hearing about basic income, people like Chris Hughes and others are proposing something that I know that different indigenous nations have been doing already for years. There’s so much experience we have, with this subject that’s gaining so much ground, that it seems like it’d be silly for indigenous people to be left out of it. And not just silly, but further making indigenous experience invisible.
Mia Birdsong: There’s a lot to think about and interrogate when it comes to what guaranteed income would look like. There is one question I want to address because it comes up over and over again, so let’s just get this out of the way right now. The United States of America is the wealthiest nation in the world. We have the resources to pay for some version of guaranteed income without eliminating all of the other benefits low-income folks have access to. The real question is not can we pay for it, but do we want to?
People across the political ideological spectrum have vastly different ideas about guaranteed income, some of which could genuinely benefit people experiencing poverty and others that would be a total disaster. It includes everything from a 90% tax rate on the rich, to expanding the earned income tax credit, to dismantling the entire social safety net system. You can get into some of the debates, the specifics, and the various considerations out there on the internet. Our website, morethanenoughpodcast.com, can point you towards some resources too. But on this podcast, that’s not what we’re here to talk about.
What we’re going to do is listen to people experiencing poverty, and those who advocate for economic justice. And we’re going to explore some of the moral and social questions guaranteed income raises, and in that we’re not going to be limited by what’s likely or politically expedient. We’re going to allow ourselves to imagine best-case scenarios. I think Ai-jen Poo, MacArthur Genius and Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, offers a critical starting place for the power of approaching policy conversations without our inner devil’s advocate getting in the way.
Ai-jen Poo: We need to imagine policy and imagine our solutions from that place of abundance, and allow these ideas to really take hold and to give them life in the context of an abundant politic. Because the truth is that this is a very wealthy country, and there’s a lot of people who have a ton of creativity and potential to offer, and also a lot of wealth and prosperity in this country. It just needs to get recirculated and redistributed in a different way, and so I think we just need to keep challenging ourselves to keep abundant.
Mia Birdsong: Let’s just get this out of the way right now, and never speak of it again. The United States of America is the wealthiest nation in the world. We have the resources to pay for some generous version of guaranteed income. The real question is not can we pay for it, but do we want to?
When I was 25 and living in New York, my then-boyfriend Eric went back home to Illinois to help his mother and stepfather build a house. He invited me to come and help for a week. Each morning we’d get up before the sun, eat some toast, and pile into the pickup truck to drive to the house we were building. We’d work until noon, and then stop for lunch. Each day Eric brought a different kind of apple for us to try, and each day his stepfather John brought a different gun for us to try. That’s when I discovered that I’m pretty good with a six shooter. I had never seen a gun in person until that week.
One evening after dinner, John took us to the shooting range. I’m not sure how it is in any other shooting range context, but this range was in the basement of the junior high school, because the junior high school had a gun club. You know, chess club, math league, debate team, gun club.
I remember very vividly descending the stairs to the basement. John went first, then Eric, then me. I got far enough down the stairs to see below the ceiling into the room. I remember breaking into a cold sweat, and suddenly realizing where I was. In the middle of Illinois, the only black person for miles, a woman in a room full of white men with guns. I thought, this is how people disappear. I managed to keep going down the stairs, and watched as John greeted his friends and introduced Eric and me. The greetings I received were warm and welcoming. Several of the men offered their guns for me to try out, and complimented me on my shooting. They gave me advice on my stance and technique. They were kind of sweet.
I mostly listened to them talk to each other, and I remember at one point realizing that I was in a room full of dads. I don’t want to overstate this, we did not discuss immigration or policing or abortion. I didn’t suddenly think we could be friends, but the experience complicated my worldview. These men, who a week earlier I understood as caricatures, I suddenly saw as human beings.
On that trip I found some cow bones in a field, and as a kind of witchy city girl, I took them as treasure. I used to display them, as a reminder to invite myself into the sometimes uncomfortable place of really recognizing and believing in the inherent humanity and dignity of people I don’t agree with, including people who don’t extend the same graciousness to me. I do this not for what it does for them, but because of what it does for me. Seeing others’ humanity prevents me from losing my own. I don’t get this right all the time, but I keep working at it.
As we struggle through this time of deep dissent, division, and fear about the state of the country and the survival of democracy, we have to reckon with the tremendous injustice many of us experience, and many of us contribute to. I welcome the opportunity guaranteed income offers, both as part of a solution to income inequality and as an entry point into a conversation about how we can walk ourselves back from the precipice we’re on. So we can be better people, so we can become our most generous, loving, kind selves.
As you listen to and, I hope, think about the people and ideas this podcast series presents, I’m inviting you to be open, to suspend cynicism, and to revel in what is wholly human about all of us. Because I believe there is a kind of joy in that, a kind of liberation in rejecting what we’ve learned about who is deserving and undeserving. Rejecting the idea that in order for us to win, others have to lose. Let’s start from a place that redefines success as each of us getting what we need. Let’s start with more than enough.
More Than Enough was developed by Next River Productions, created and hosted by me, Mia Birdsong. Audio engineering and music by Nino Moschella. Script development and production by Allison Cook.
The content of this podcast was informed by the stories of hundreds of people across the country, only some of whom you heard from. Thank you to everyone who took their time to speak with me and share their story.
Support for the production of More Than Enough was provided by a few generous folks and the Economic Security Project, an organization advancing cash-based interventions in the United States, and reigning in corporate monopolies. More Than Enough is a project of The Nation magazine.