In contemporary debates around Universal Basic Income (UBI), much focus is given to its potential role in mitigating the adverse effects of automatization on employment. This focus is driven, in part, by the growing interest of the tech industry in UBI and growing support of some of the leading figures in the Silicon Valley for this policy. The basic income event on January 16 took quite a different normative and practical focus, as it was centered around the relationship between UBI and racial justice. But it was, in fact, about much more: it was about a new vision for society, about a re-imagined social contract for the 21st century.
Dorian T. Warren - a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, an MSNBC Contributor, and Board Chair of the Center for Community Change – began his talk by reminding the audience that as radical and exciting UBI is, it is by no means a new idea. In fact, both Martin Luther King Jr. and the leaders of the Black Panthers movement endorsed and promoted similar ideas and policies five decades ago. Basic or guaranteed income occupied a central place in the later thought and work of King. As Warren argued, he viewed it as a part of a general solution to the widespread problem of poverty, forced unemployment, and the strong sense of moral indignity that accompanies both. Furthermore, King recognized that this problem is by no means unique to the African American community. Well aware to the fact that two-thirds of poor Americans are white, King seemed to view this as an opportunity for a general and common struggle that would generate the combined strength that was needed to overcome the obvious opposition. As part of his notion of the triple-evil of poverty, racism, and militarism, King bravely asserted that the costs of funding such a solution were, in fact, equivalent to those of the ongoing war in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, as Warren pointed out, the problems that led King to endorse UBI are as relevant today as they were five decades ago. African Americans today face the same crises of high unemployment and low wages, and black communities are systematically left out of market considerations. This is not only the result of decades of slavery and racial segregation laws but also of the intentional exclusion of African Americans from past socioeconomic programs such as the New Deal. While the majority of the poor are still white, African Americans are twice as likely to suffer from unemployment, and when employed, they are significantly more likely to occupy low-paying jobs with little to no job security. Hence, UBI is just as relevant today as it was in King’s day: from the perspective of racial justice, it carries the potential for reparation of vast injustices and exploitation of the past and present, and for a significant improvement of the current safety net.
The hope that UBI may prove to be a part of the solution to the problems of current safety net programs was also shared by Mia Birdsong. Birdsong – a long-time activist, the director of Family Story, and the former Vice President of the Family Independence Initiative – shared insights from her recent Listen First tour, through which she attempts to bring to the discussion on UBI the voices of those who are most marginalized today and will most benefit from such a policy. The reaction to such a proposal among African-Americans with whom she talks is overwhelming support. For them, such a policy represents the potential for the fulfillment of a wide range of goals: securing a better present and future for their children through education, proper housing (as she beautifully put it, “people do not just want housing, they want homes”), a functioning car with sufficient gas, and the chance to enjoy some leisure.
This final point touches upon one of Birdsong’s radical arguments in favor of UBI: the need for rethinking the moral value we attach to work, and the centrality of work to our sense of identity and personal dignity. Value and dignity, according to her, are measured by hard work; and hard work, in turn, is measured by sacrifice. UBI can be a fruitful first step in changing the social stigma of the poor and unemployed. Such a policy emphasizes agency, enhances values of social trust and generosity, and shifts the focus from ‘fixing’ the poor to fixing the system.
The concluding discussion with Juliana Bidadanure – Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University and Faculty Director of the Stanford Basic Income Lab – revolved around some of the potential difficulties associated with the implementation of UBI as a policy: the relationship with organized labor, the punitive nature of the current social benefit system, and the potential for a universal movement in favor of UBI. This discussion allowed both Warren and Birdsong to elaborate on one of the central points that they both share: the need to think of UBI within a broader context of social and political movement, and as a central part of a new vision for society. In this context, Birdsong stressed that while we were socialized to ‘dream small,’ the time has come for us to ‘dream big’ again and to imagine a new future for our society.
This is perhaps the most significant takeaway from the event: taken by itself, UBI is not a panacea to all of the contemporary problems of capitalism, nor to the past and present racial and gender injustices. It is, however, a strong imaginary that can and should be incorporated into a larger creative vision for the society of the future. King’s statement that “the time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty” is as true today as it was in his time, and UBI still occupies the imagination of those who fight to achieve this goal. Moreover, as both Warren and Birdsong demonstrated this evening, it may just be the cornerstone of a re-imagined social contract for the 21st century.
Avshalom Schwartz is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University and a graduate research assistant at the Stanford Basic Income Lab.