Amid the coronavirus pandemic, support for universal basic income is gaining momentum.
Patricia Jackson, 34, has always valued the presence of her family. The middle of 14 children, she said her home was made up of love, laughter, and good memories.
“It was a lot of us – not just my siblings, but my cousins would come over and stay for summers and winter and spring breaks,” she said. “The house was always full. I grew up in a loving, big, family house.”
Watch: Defund the War on Poverty
With her father a pastor and her mother a medical coder, Jackson’s family was dependent on mostly one income, and that is a struggle she said was more or less hidden.
“With my parents having to take care of so many kids, I’m sure they struggled,” Jackson said. “I’m sure there were times they didn’t know where our next meal was coming from. But, thanks be to God and to family, they made it work. [My parents] showed us love, patience, and how to make it work and stand by each other's side and support one another.”
Along with her husband, Derrick, and their two children, Jackson lives in Roseland – where she’s lived her whole life – and for the last seven years has been working at Catholic Charities’ Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Foods Center in Gage Park; Derrick is a meat salesman. Like her parents, the Jacksons made do with what they had until a life-changing opportunity presented itself.
One of Jackson’s church members told her about Family Independence Initiative (FII), a nonprofit organization that runs program that is a form of universal basic income.
Universal basic income (UBI) means that everybody, regardless of income, is given a set amount of money on a regular schedule (whether weekly or monthly), without restrictions.
While she was enrolled in FII’s two-year program, Jackson had access to a reserve of $3,200 that she was able to draw from when she and her family needed it.
“There’s a link they’d send us in the email, and we’d just go through the link to request funds,” Jackson said. Each month, Jackson could request “anything from a dollar” to $500, and the funds are disbursed, no strings or stipulations attached.
Amid the compounded economic crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, poverty alleviation advocates, social workers, economists, and even some politicians have called for UBI programs at federal, state, and local levels, but nothing is officially on the books in Chicago. In February 2020, the Chicago Resilient Families Task Force published a report recommending a UBI trial program – 1,000 selected participants would each receive $1,000 a month for 18 months.
Despite strong public support for UBI programs, Mayor Lori Lightfoot doesn’t feel a universal basic income program is sustainable; she’d rather “teach people how to fish so they can feed themselves for a lifetime,” she said at the Solution Toward Ending Poverty Summit at the University of Illinois at Chicago in February 2020.
Universal basic income and its sibling guaranteed income (similar to UBI, except there is an income-level threshold to meet before qualifying for it) have picked up more attention in mainstream U.S. conversations within the last year, due in large part to Andrew Yang, a former corporate lawyer who ran for president in 2020 and made UBI programs a major part of his campaign platform.
It is worth noting that a few states have tried smaller-scaled UBI programs before, including Alaska, Iowa, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and a few cities in California. In Alaska specifically, a study conducted by the University of Alaska found that since 1982, the UBI has cut poverty in the state by 20 percent.
Ebony Scott, partnership director at FII, says UBI programs haven’t had much popularity here in the U.S. because we are “beholden to a certain way of doing things.”
“You haven’t seen a whole lot of experimentation in the U.S. because the U.S. is operating in a different context than a lot of the rest of the world. The experimentation that has happened in the U.S. actually is working,” she said.
To her, the stereotypes about lower-income people are part of the reason why UBI programs get so much pushback from policymakers. Scott says lawmakers worry that people will waste or recklessly spend money that they didn’t have to work for.
“Do you have the edge case where, yes, somebody got the money and did something frivolous? Absolutely,” she said. “But it’s such a small, marginal amount.”
Scott argues abuses of benefit programs happen in wealthier, whiter communities, but that in those cases legislators don’t “make decisions based on the whole on these tiny, fractional data points” and that the excuse to not support UBI programs is rooted in paternalistic classism.
Universal basic income is an idea that stretches back as far as the fourteenth century during the French Renaissance. In the 20th century, conversations surrounding UBI picked up steam after World War I in Britain, as mathematicians, economists, and politicians began exploring ways to prevent “overproduction” and “anarchism” in the wake of the Great War.
Within the last 40 years, European countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands were seemingly on track to implement UBI programs, but currently the only country that has a system closest to UBI is Norway. As a welfare state, all Norwegian citizens residing in the country have access to certain fundamental goods, including access to education, health care, and income in the form of social security or benefits. However, citizens have to work or at least search for a job, pay taxes, vote in elections, and not be convicted of any crimes in order to receive any benefits. In 2008, neighboring Finland conducted a UBI experiment, but it has not been implemented on a national scale.
Here in the U.S., policymakers have opted for more programmatic approaches to poverty alleviation. President Lyndon B. Johnson made poverty his sworn enemy during his 1964 State of the Union Address, declaring a so-called War on Poverty. Out of this war, programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps were introduced.
It might seem that the national rate of poverty has fallen dramatically since then. When taking safety-net programs into account, the poverty rate has fallen from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012, according to a Columbia University study. To most people, this is clearly a huge reduction and means the War on Poverty has been a success.
Except it hasn’t.
The traditional poverty threshold is the amount of money a family of three would have to make to spend less than one-third of their income on food in 1963 and 1964. Aside from adjusting for inflation, there has been no other change in the way the United States officially measures poverty. It doesn’t factor income from government programs, such as the earned income tax credit (EITC) or food stamps (SNAP), but it also doesn’t take costs such as transportation, child care, and health care into consideration, either. As an attempt to remedy this, the Census Bureau started developing and publishing a supplemental poverty measurement in 2011. The authors of the study make the argument that if you don’t factor in governmental programs, the poverty rate increased from 26 percent in 1967 to 29 percent in 2012.
Ebony Scott says the War on Poverty was not only ineffective, but also subjugated the very people it was intended to help, and that those populations are in the same position nearly 60 years later.
“In reality, the strategies we use are rooted in a narrative about Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people that very racist and patriarchal folks believed about those communities in the 1950s and ’60s,” she said. “You have a huge flow of money that goes into these programs and strategies that have largely been ineffective.” According to Scott, it’s been largely ineffective because “we still cling to this notion that you can’t trust people with money directly” – an idea she says is just not true.
In 2019, roughly $361 billion (or 8 percent) of the total federal budget went to support safety-net programs that provide aid (besides health insurance and Social Security benefits) to financially unstable families, according to an April 2020 report published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, The Cato Institute, a think tank, estimates almost $19 trillion has been spent since President Johnson announced his War on Poverty, yet the supplemental poverty rate remains almost the same.
Many safety-net programs do not offer liquid cash transfers or assistance. Some offer things such as vouchers, prepaid cards with a certain limit on them, and stipulations on what the money can be spent on. Some require clients to attend budgeting or financial literacy classes before they can access any funds.
Sarah Spunt, executive director of LIFT Chicago, a nonprofit poverty alleviation organization, says requirements such as those are paternalistic and keep people in cycles of dependence on the programs, as opposed to financial stability and independence, which proponents say was the goal of Johnson’s War on Poverty
“Unfortunately in our country, we've designed a system that keeps people poor and disincentivizes income gains,” she said. “If you are on SNAP or TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) and you make an extra $1,000 a year over what the benefits cliff is, then you lose your benefits. But that extra $1,000 a year isn't going to put food on the table for a family, and so you find that the cycle of poverty just continues.”
Rather than have FII members such as Jackson agree to a list of stipulations or opt into social programs to access funds, Scott says the money is given to members with the understanding that they can make the choices that best fit their family.
“The traditional approach of welfare and assuming people who are struggling just don’t know anything hasn’t lowered the poverty rate,” she said. “You can trust people to know what’s best for themselves and that people will invest in themselves in ways that make sense,” she said.
For Patricia Jackson, FII’s investment gave her and her husband the ability to save money towards long-term goals, including buying a new truck for Derrick’s business. Previously a one-car household, they had to maneuver around both of their work schedules, the children’s school schedule, and everyday life happenings, which put a strain on their finances. Derrick often had to rent trucks, which ate into his profits, and Patricia either relied on public transportation or ride share services, which all added up. While they were saving for the new truck, the cash transfers from FII allowed flexibility for emergencies that popped up, such aswhen their sole working car needed a new alternator.
Once he was able to purchase a new vehicle, Jackson told WTTW the change in their daily schedules was “dramatic” in the best way. It allowed more movement and flexibility. They no longer have to rent cars or spend extra money on transportation, which has increased their profits as well as their leisure time.
“It’s a dream come true,” she said.