Introducing the Universal Income Project


By Marybeth Seitz-Brown |

The universal basic income: It’s an idea that has captured interest across ideologies — from libertarians to the Movement for Black Lives, from labor leaders to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Today, Roosevelt is excited to launch a project to investigate its effects, how it would work, and how we could make it a reality.

First things first: What is a universal basic income? By its current definition, a UBI is a cash grant that is distributed universally with no means test (unlike welfare programs, everyone gets it, no matter what), over the long term in a well-defined region, and provides enough money to survive on. Our project will investigate benefits at that level, but also smaller amounts, such as base incomes in the low thousands that would not replace labor income but could smooth income volatility or supplement low wages.

The strange bedfellows who have created the buzz around the UBI each view a direct cash grant as the best policy solution to a specific challenge. Some say our current social safety net is overly bureaucratic and its resources inefficiently managed, and that the best way to support those who are struggling to make ends meet is simply to cut them a check. Advocates from the racial justice community say it is about time we address poverty (which is racialized and gendered) for what it is: not a character flaw or lack of motivation, but simply the lack of money that is the result of a long history of exclusions from the policies that have built the majority-white middle class. And much of the new momentum around the policy comes from those who fear impending technological unemployment—the idea that the exponentially increasing pace of technological innovation will automate so many pieces of current human labor that we are approaching a future with drastically fewer jobs than citizens.

Whether or not the robots are slowly taking all of our jobs, we know that our current social safety net isn’t working for the kinds of work and work relationships that are becoming the new norm. That’s why this project will be part of a broader program studying how to create a new social contract adapted to the way we work in the 21st century economy. While UBI is just one of many policy ideas that we might need to build a future of shared prosperity, it provides the opportunity to ask many big questions that need answers and can help pave the way forward.

Though there is new momentum building around UBI, it is not a new idea. Historical figures ranging from Milton Friedman to Martin Luther King, Jr. have advocated for it, and the idea has gone in and out of vogue for the past 60 years. Now that there is more anxiety than ever about technological change and its effects on jobs, the idea has resurfaced with new vigor. In addition to the successful pilots conducted in the 70s and 80s in Manitoba, Canada and six states in the U.S., there are new studies in Namibia and Scandinavia either in progress or planned for 2017.

Despite how long the idea has been around, there are still many unanswered questions about how a universal income would work in practice: What would be the macroeconomic effects of its implementation? What is the Goldilocks number (just enough to live on, while still being fiscally possible) for which we should advocate? What are the best sources of funding for such a large-scale, sweeping policy? And what is the best way to communicate the idea to those unfamiliar with the concept? These will be just some of the questions our project will tackle. We’re grateful for the support of the Basic Income Collaborative, the Joyce Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation who have made this project possible.

You can read a more in-depth history and overview of UBI here, and keep an eye out for periodic updates on what we learn on our website and blog. We’re excited to be tackling this new challenge and to share what we learn with you.

Marybeth Seitz-Brown is a Roosevelt Program Associate.