Andrew Yang dropped out of the presidential race in early February, and with him went his promised “freedom dividend”— universal basic income.
Universal basic income is an idea that has spanned centuries, has been proposed in one format or another by public figures ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Milton Friedman to Mark Zuckerberg. At its core, the idea is that the government provides a minimum income to those who qualify to lift them out of poverty, protect them from automation or compensate their unpaid work.
Some propose “those who qualify” be everyone, others suggest it’s only those who are most in need — people who are being supported by various welfare programs. Democrats, for the most part, want it as an addition to welfare; Republicans, usually, want it to replace welfare.
The important thing to note, though, is that it’s not as unpopular of a policy as Yang’s campaign results would make it seem, and it makes more common sense than most of us would like to admit.
At its core, the idea is that the government provides a minimum income to those who qualify, to lift them out of poverty, protect them from automation or compensate their unpaid work.
I am a senior at Emerson College, in Boston. I created my own program at Emerson, which is called Writing and Publishing on Inequality (and here I am, doing just that). I wasn’t really a supporter of Yang, but I didn’t oppose him either (I’ll vote for any Democrat that makes it to the general election, even if I disagree with them on many economic issues). I write for a data science conference company, and I receive a basic income.
Did I get you with that last part?
I’m not a part of any of the many, so far successful, trial runs of UBI. I’m not from Italy or Iran, Seattle or Stockton, California. I’m not on welfare, I don’t qualify for food stamps and I don’t have a meal plan or live on campus.
What I have are parents who believe in the value of working for a living and learning how to make money on my own, but also understand that today, compared to when they were enrolled, that’s nearly impossible to do while in school. I’m in the privileged position to receive from my parents exactly what Yang promised us in his running: $1000 a month, no matter what (as long as I’m in school).
As I said, I live in Boston. I share a two-bedroom apartment with another person, I commute an hour on the train every morning for classes. I spend my freedom dividend entirely on rent, but I could have had more to spare if I chose to share a room or live in a different town. This maybe isn’t the smartest way to use my basic income — it could be more fruitful to have leftover money to pay for bills or groceries or something. But it was my decision to do so, and any time I feel like I don’t have enough left in my bank for what I want to do, I at least feel the security that it was my decision and mine alone.
With the information I had going into it, I knew I cared more about having my own bedroom every night than I did a long commute or an extra $200. My money is not dependent on what I use it for, and only I get to decide what is best for me.
For the rest of my expenses, I work, making about $1200 a month at my part-time job, which is more fortunate than many people can say, given that I make above minimum wage. I have some student loans in my name and some loans my parents have taken out but that I will be paying back. I’m attending graduate school in the fall, and since it’s in a cheaper city and I’ll have a heavier school schedule, I’ll likely work less and rely on my basic income more, day-to-day. Spending my income one way, at one point in time, doesn’t dictate how I have to spend it forever.
I currently work more than many students at my college — a private school in a city, full of middle-class students like myself. But I also know there are many at my school and at the schools neighboring me (there are over 60) that work far more than I do and don’t have the luxury of a basic income. I know I’m lucky. And I feel lucky every time I get to come home from class and watch TV, every time I receive a paycheck and my parent’s direct deposit, and every time I’m in the class I’m auditing just because I want to learn more. I’m thankful when I get to revise an essay, go over a reading for a second time, or write an article like this, because without the extra $1000 in my account each month, I wouldn’t have time to do any of that.
Each month, after bills (wifi, electricity, car insurance, credit cards), I have a couple of hundred dollars to spare, which often goes toward eating out and doing college student things. I’m not perfect with money, but I’m learning, and I do my job because it means I can afford to learn and still live a comfortable life. Learning how to be good at money is a process, and your life shouldn’t be at risk if you don’t get it right the first time.
Most of my experiences are exactly what the research on UBI predicts. Some opponents of basic income say that people won’t use their money for what’s good for them, so we should give it to them in the form of food stamps or other forms of welfare. This is, for one, somewhat patronizing, and secondly, not backed by the research.
It’s impossible to know exactly how income receivers spend their money. But researchers from the University of Tennessee and the University of Pennsylvania found that receivers of the Stockton UBI used about 40% of their monthly $500 on food, about 24% on sales/merchandise, which includes places like Walmart or discount stores that also sell groceries, 11% on utilities and bills, and 9% on car repairs and fuel. The rest went to everything from medical expenses to education and donations.
This isn’t to say I think all welfare programs are patronizing, or that they should all be replaced with UBI. But a main critique from the Right is that UBI would cost too much, and would just be even more big government. Reducing the less effective forms of welfare would create a middle ground that actually helps people, while giving them the authority over their own bodies and lives, just like I have been granted.
A critique of UBI from the Left is that it would make businesses think they can lower wages and working standards, because their employees have more money to begin with. The Right tends to argue that even if that’s the case, it wouldn’t matter because basic income receivers would now have more bargaining power since they could survive even if they have to leave a bad job and find another one.
And while the former is a valid argument, and businesses do seem to be worse to employees if they’re allowed to, I’ve also found the latter to be true. When I first moved to Boston, I took a low paying job I was excited about, but after spending eight months in it, I realized I was being underpaid and overworked. If I was completely reliant on that job for my income, I would have been forced to stay in that unhealthy situation until I found a replacement. Instead, I quit. With savings and a few hundred dollars of freelance work, I stayed jobless for about a month, but wasn’t forced into another bad position. I could hold out for something that actually benefited me.
Many people fearful of UBI say they don’t like it because it would disincentivize people from working. Because who would work more if they could survive to work less. The research shows a minimal decrease in working hours, and even then, it’s mostly attributed to parents, who are working less to spend more time with their children, or to students who are working less so they can study more, like myself. Most people will still work extra because they want to afford their standard of living, and don’t want to move.
The odd thing, in all of this, is that I started this essay saying I would be voting for any Democrat candidate, yet what I’ve laid out here, in my argument for why UBI is good, draws from both sides of the party line. Controversial as it sounds, I think people should be allowed to do what they want if it doesn’t harm others. And if there’s a particularly large barrier, keeping them from that life they desire or deserve, I think the government should step in.
It’s the people with privilege and power who are in the position to get UBI enacted, even if the largest beneficiaries are those below the poverty level.
I wanted to go to Emerson College, I wanted to work for an education that would support the rest of the life I want to live. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the basic income my parents have provided me with. And I think it’s unfair that I get to sidestep that barrier to entry, when so many others don’t.
No proposed plan for UBI has been perfect, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.