Why the next US president should consider universal basic income

A couple counting money. Universal basic income lets people bridge periods out of work or in bad jobs so they can invest in their own skills and re-enter the workforce at a higher level. Getty Images
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It might feel like 10 years, rather than 10 months ago, but cast your mind back to January of this year and the campaign message from the White House was fairly straightforward: the economy is in great shape, the markets are booming, Donald Trump is the right man to carry America forward.

Now, just two days before the presidential election, as the coronavirus pandemic accelerates once more, that message rings hollow. In the absence of renewed financial aid, most Americans are far more worried about paying household bills than managing stock portfolios.

Ironically, Covid-19 aside, market analysts are sanguine about whatever eventual election outcome presents itself. Another four years of Mr Trump could theoretically bring further tax cuts and maybe more deregulation; while even the Wall Street Journal has warmed to the idea of a moderate Joe Biden presidency, bringing stability and spending to the economy, even if coupled with higher taxes for the nation's wealthiest.

The 2020 US presidential election has certainly had some memorable moments. AFP

Whichever candidate takes up office on January 20, the far more pressing issue is how to support the millions of Americans who have fallen through the widening cracks in the US economy.

Frustration at the impasse on Capitol Hill over a stimulus package is clear. Almost 130,000 people liked a recent Tweet by former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, which read: "Imagine having the power to ease the suffering of millions and failing to use it."

So much is at stake in these talks for millions of struggling Americans in the short term; yet there is also increasing consensus that it’s time for more radical, longer-term solutions.

Even before the pandemic, an estimated 63 per cent of America’s households were unable to cut a $500 cheque. Record employment numbers masked record income inequality, and close to half the US workforce was employed in jobs with a mean annual pay of under $20,000 a year.

Among the proposals in the current conversation around stimulus is something Mr Yang championed in his own presidential campaign, the notion of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). Senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris’s Monthly Economic Crisis Support Act calls for $2,000 per month payments to most US residents during the pandemic and beyond.

At first glance, this feels utterly alien to America, a country built on go-getting capitalism, with a historic tolerance of work with neither contracts nor benefits. But a Hill-HarrisX poll in August revealed that 55 per cent of registered voters support the idea.

Michael Tubbs, the 30-year-old mayor of Stockton, California, has taken this theoretical support a step further. His city is extending a pioneering experiment with UBI: 125 residents are getting $500 a month in cash with no strings attached.

Mr Tubbs first ran for City Council office four years ago, when the then-bankrupt Stockton was, in his words, “the most miserable city". It is, he told me, “ground zero” for American life. “We are the most diverse city in this country, but we also have some real structural challenges.”

Michael Tubbs, Mayor of Stockton, is seen at his office in Stockton, California on February 7, 2020. - Mayor Tubbs with the help of the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration implemented an18 month trial of Universal Basic Income for 125 residents of his city. The scoffed-at idea of paying everyone a basic income as machines take people's jobs is getting a fresh look as a possible remedy for economies cratered by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Nick Otto / AFP)

Stockton’s grim statistics, Mr Tubbs said, gave him the courage to try to do things differently, and it seems to be working. “We saw in 2018 and 2019, a 40 per cent reduction in homicides. We now give scholarships to every student who graduates from the largest school district, we have the Stockton Scholars Programme. We are piloting basic income. We are now the second most fiscally healthy city,” he added.

The Stockton experiment highlights the appeal of UBI for many Americans. Crucially, it’s about income, rather than longer-term wealth; stability as a platform for betterment.

“Research suggests that kids who have more money, whose parents aren't economically anxious, who grew up in more stable environments, not surprisingly, do better in school,” Tubbs said. “It's not because the kids are inherently smarter or inherently more hard-working, it is because those kids are in the more stable environment.”

Mr Tubbs believes that the federal government must make guaranteed income a long-term policy. “The sum total of our pandemic response has been one-time stimulus cheques and then unemployment insurance, which was a bold, radical idea – in 1935,” he said. “We have to have a social safety net that's reflective of 2020 realities.”

The 2020 realities may, hopefully at least, be unique and short-lived. But the notion that UBI or a living wage could help solve some of America’s most stubborn problems is gaining credibility. Perhaps it’s time for the next occupant of the White House to consider it.

Julia Chatterley anchors the CNN International show, First Move, which airs Monday-Friday at 6pm