Zdi se bolj kot nepogojevana socialna pomoč, saj je 500 dolarjev na mesec premalo za pokritje osnovnih življenjskih stroškov. Vendar je korak naprej in ukrep, ki pomaga mnogim, ki so v socialni in posledično psihološki stiski, da najdejo tla pod nogami. Predvsem pa je ukrep, ki v krizi najhitreje deluje – zagotavlja socialno varnost in večjo stabilnost agregatnega povpraševanja. Toda če želimo, da UTD postane res univerzalen, bo potrebno definirati davčne vire zanj, denimo davek na premoženje in dediščine, davek na internetne nakupe, dividende od visokotehnoloških podjetij itd.
Last October, a fire tore through the apartment complex in Stockton, California, where Laura Kidd-Plummer had lived for five years. Nearly a decade earlier, Kidd-Plummer, who will turn seventy this year, had retired from her job in the wardrobe department at the Oakland Coliseum, where she had worked for twenty-one years. She eventually moved to Stockton in search of cheaper rent. After the fire, she and her dog, Poopee, a Pomeranian-Yorkie mix, were left homeless. Ever since, she told me, “I’m just trying to keep my head above water.” She stayed in a motel for a couple of months, which was covered by insurance, and then with acquaintances. In May, she moved into a loft in North Stockton. She was able to make the deposit on the apartment using funds she has received as a participant in the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, or SEED, a basic-income pilot program that has provided unconditional cash transfers of five hundred dollars per month to individuals over the last year and a half.
The program, spearheaded by Stockton’s mayor, Michael Tubbs, was scheduled to end this summer: this month’s payment was slated to be the last. In late May, Tubbs announced that SEED would be extended through January, 2021, in response to the economic strain put on participants by the coronavirus pandemic. While the idea of extending the program had been under discussion even before the spread of COVID-19, Tubbs told me that current conditions made doing so a “moral imperative,” as many participants have lost work, and those classified as essential workers face increased risk. “COVID-19 has put the focus on the fact that a lot of Americans live in constant moments of economic disruption, because the fundamentals of the economy haven’t been working,” he told me.
Tubbs, who is twenty-nine, is Stockton’s first Black mayor, and its youngest ever. After four years serving on the city council, he ran for mayor on a platform focussed on recovery from the 2008 crash, and was elected, in 2016, with seventy per cent of the vote, defeating an incumbent plagued by a string of scandals. SEED has relied on significant outside funding, as have several other projects that Tubbs has pursued, including an education initiative that has been run on a twenty-million-dollar private donation. Tubbs first encountered the concept of a universal basic income, or U.B.I., while he was an undergraduate at Stanford, in 2009, in a course that covered Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s advocacy for the idea late in his life. The possibility of issuing unconditional payments to a group of Stockton residents came up soon after Tubbs took office, in 2017, as a part of his staff’s research project on addressing poverty. Twenty per cent of Stockton’s residents fall below the poverty line, which is well above the state average, and residents of color are disproportionately affected. Still, Tubbs was initially skeptical—he worried about funding and thought that the idea could prove unpopular with voters. “This was my first time being elected,” he told me. “I didn’t want it to be my last.”
The plan started to take shape, though, when Tubbs met the co-chair of the Economic Security Project, a basic-income advocacy group launched by the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. The organization was looking for a city in which to test a pilot, and gave Stockton a million-dollar grant. (The program’s extension will be funded separately, through a private donation.) The funding allowed a hundred and twenty-five participants each to receive five hundred dollars a month, an amount that was based on data indicating that around forty per cent of Americans can’t afford a four-hundred-dollar emergency expense. A hundred recipients in the program are anonymous, while the rest, including Kidd-Plummer, have volunteered to speak publicly about their experience. The study set out to prove that a basic income could, according to the research plan, “lead to reductions in monthly income volatility and provide greater income sufficiency, which will in turn lead to reduced psychological stress and improved physical functioning.” A random sample of residents in neighborhoods with populations that are at or below Stockton’s median income level were contacted. Around forty-three per cent of those who were chosen reported being employed either full or part time. Ten per cent of them are caregivers, a group that often fails to qualify for unemployment and other benefits. Tubbs told me that he doesn’t see a basic income as particularly radical but, instead, as “this generation’s extension of the safety net,” following in the path of things like Social Security, child-labor laws, weekends, and collective bargaining.
Since SEED was launched, the idea of a basic income, which has long been considered a fringe idea, has gained at least provisional support from the Pope, Jack Dorsey, and Nancy Pelosi. Andrew Yang made U.B.I. a centerpiece of his Presidential campaign. More recently, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which is estimated to have kept twelve million people from sinking into poverty, included direct cash payments to every American with an annual income below seventy-five thousand dollars, and there are currently eight bills in Congress proposing some form of additional cash transfer to back up the checks that have already gone out. In May, eighty-four members of Congress signed a joint letter asking that monthly direct payments be included in future relief bills as “the most efficient mechanism for delivering economic relief to those most at-risk in this crisis.”
Jennifer Burns, a history professor at Stanford University, told me that the bipartisan support for the CARES Act marked a significant shift in thinking about cash transfers. Although both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon briefly considered forms of U.B.I.—Johnson as part of the War on Poverty, and Nixon as an element of the Family Assistance Plan—cash transfers have not, historically, been a widely popular political idea. Nixon’s proposal, which failed to pass in the Senate, was criticized on the right for “rewarding wasteful behavior,” as Burns put it, and on the left for endangering existing programs. Ultimately, the idea was adapted to become the Earned Income Tax Credit, a system of rebates for low-income Americans that has some similarities to a basic-income program but is conditioned on work. Recent calls for U.B.I. have mostly come from Silicon Valley, where libertarian-leaning entrepreneurs embraced the concept as a quick fix for job losses due to increased automation. According to Burns, the current crisis has shifted the focus away from hypothetical disasters toward inequities that already exist. In her view, the automation argument is primarily a distraction, but “if worrying about A.I. helps people look around and think about what’s already under way, that’s good.”
The goal of SEED was always to promote the adoption of basic-income programs on a state or federal level, rather than to lay the groundwork for a long-term program in Stockton. Now, as the program moves into its final stretch, its creators have been flooded with requests for advice from pilot programs in development in other cities, including Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Newark, Nashville, and New Orleans. Last month, the U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution, led by Tubbs, that urges “cities, states, and the federal government to explore the feasibility of a guaranteed income” in response to the way in which “COVID-19 has shed light on economic insecurity and exposed the vulnerability of our current welfare system.” Shenna Bellows, a state senator in Maine who is leading a study committee on U.B.I., told me that, in recent months, her constituents “have really struggled with the byzantine unemployment and small-business-relief programs,” and she hopes “this crisis will point the way to simpler solutions.”
Vir: Linnea Feldman Emison, The New Yorker