The Dignity of Universal Basic Income: Juliana Bidadanure

Guaranteed Income in Martin Luther King Jr.'s Vision for Racial and Economic Justice lecture on April 18, 2023, at Stanford University. The event featured Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui—two municipal leaders testing a guaranteed income program in their communities—and was moderated by Juliana Bidadnure.

Photography by Christine Baker

When Juliana Bidadanure came to Stanford in 2015, everyone told her that U.S. politics and welfare systems were so regressive that engaging in meaningful political conversations about universal basic income proposals — periodic, unconditional cash payments to all people — felt nearly impossible. But by 2016, fears that artificial intelligence-fueled automation would lead to massive worker displacement reignited interest in guaranteed income, especially in Silicon Valley.

Seizing this opportunity, Bidadanure talked to people at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society about creating a basic income lab. She envisioned an academic and institutional home for its study that would address AI and job loss, but more centrally, the history, philosophy, and movements around social welfare, egalitarian justice, and the redistribution of resources that led to the emergence of universal basic income. Racial and gender justice, equality, freedom, and fairness would also be at the Lab’s heart. “It was supposed to be a very small initiative at first,” Bidadanure recalls, “so the Center gave me a seed grant. Then I got another one from the Economic Security Project, which has been critical in funding universal basic income research in the U.S.” With seed funding from the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society and the Economic Security Project, the Basic Income Lab was launched. “After that, we got grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and others until we were able to hire staff and grow.” 

Sparking Interest in Universal Basic Income

Bidadanure, who is a political philosopher and a philosopher of inequalities, became interested in universal basic income for a range of reasons, the first of which was growing up in the suburbs of Paris in Saint-Denis, a very low-income neighborhood populated primarily by migrant workers. Unlike most U.S. suburbs, French suburbs are home to many of the country’s housing projects and its low-income families. 

So from a young age, I was very aware that too many people struggle with too little and work very hard for their entire lives — only to remain poor.

Even in countries that seemingly provide relatively generous benefits, such as France, Bidadanure learned that the systems are often designed in ways that make it extremely difficult for people to claim what they're entitled to. But “listening to the very nasty public discourse against benefit recipients in the U.K., which is similar worldwide, really cemented my commitment to designing benefit systems that are non-stigmatizing.” 

And because universal basic income delivers unconditional cash payments to everyone, receiving benefits would no longer be stigmatized, Bidadanure contends. As a result, “It is a dignified way for individuals to receive the cash they need to lead a dignified life.” 

Having grown up in “a community with a lot of need, which was enormously dedicated to giving their children opportunities they didn’t have,” Bidadanure is convinced that if people were given an income floor, they would continue to work and make significant contributions to their communities, just more effectively. They’d have time to find the most suitable employment opportunities rather than having to take the first available job, stay with an abusive partner, or work a third poorly paid job. Further, individuals doing unpaid socially useful work — such as caregivers, volunteers, and community organizers — could make ends meet more easily. Stories collected from Guaranteed Income Pilot participants affirm her belief. 

The Future

Bidadanure is hopeful about the future. “I'm an optimist,” she said. The health crisis that resulted in the government distributing almost $1 trillion in cash through stimulus checks and the child tax credits planted the idea of guaranteed income in many people's minds. “And while basic income isn’t the full solution, there isn't one crisis that we’re currently facing — the climate crisis, the global poverty crisis, and the immigration crisis — for which having a guaranteed cash flow is irrelevant.” She believes that one day, we’ll view some form of universal basic income like we do the right to vote and the right to K-12 public education. However, “it will be a big political fight, and it will take a lot of time, a lot of organizing, and a lot of stars aligning.” 

Regarding Bidadanure’s immediate future, she and her family are moving to New York City. She will be a tenured Associate Professor of Philosophy at New York University in fall 2023 and serve as a Senior Advisor to the Basic Income Lab. Sean Kline will continue to direct the Lab from its new home at Stanford’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, and David Grusky will be the Lab’s Faculty Director. Bidadanure knows she will continue to work on basic income in one way or another, but because “the Lab’s work now is increasingly data-oriented and empirical, and I'm a philosopher, so I feel like I've done my part for now. I’m excited to move on to new adventures.”

Bidadanure is giving herself a year to figure out what she wants to prioritize intellectually. “I have plenty of ideas, so it will be very exciting to be in a new environment thinking about equality and inequality, relational equality, and basic income, but perhaps, in a different format.”

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Donna Hunter is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach living in San Francisco. She has a Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley and was an Advanced Lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric.