Secure Our Social Safety Net with a Universal Basic Income

photo of safety net
Photo credit: safety net by Rob Gunby / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Prompt: How would you design our social safety net, starting from scratch?

All things are interconnected, including us. Individuals don’t exist in a vacuum, but as a part of a social and biological ecology. From this truth derives the ethic of reciprocity which may be found in virtually every wisdom tradition of the world. Taking care of one another is a moral imperative. The so-called “social safety net” is a metaphor for how a society takes care of its members who might otherwise come to harm.

The key element of our social safety net should be the universal basic income.

There should be no means test to qualify. The income should be paid to every individual, regardless of any other income they may derive from any other source. Further, there should be no work requirement. The income should be paid whether the individual is employed full-time or part-time or completely unemployed. The income should be paid on a monthly basis to all legal permanent residents.

The amount of the income should be just enough to meet the basic necessities of life.

The chief virtue of this measure would be the direct abolition of poverty. It would also simplify our social welfare system considerably. Many programs could be eliminated and replaced by the universal basic income. We would no longer need an unemployment benefit or social security. It would also foster creativity, innovation and meaningful productivity, because people would have the freedom to pursue truly worthwhile activity.

A certain small income, sufficient for necessities, should be secured for all, whether they work or not, and that a larger income should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful. On this basis we may build further. — Bertrand Russell

Over the course of American history, various versions of this scheme have been suggested again and again, by great thinkers from Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King, Jr. Even Richard Nixon championed a variation of the idea. We even have a limited example in the Alaska Permanent Fund, which issues a check each year to all Alaska residents as a share of state revenue. Oregon is considering a similar measure. There are other examples and pilot programs around the world, with Brazil at the forefront.

Nevertheless the basic income remains unfamiliar and exotic to most Americans today, and if the subject is brought up in casual conversation, it’s likely to be greeted with raised eyebrows and quickly dismissed as a flight of utopian fancy. The two most common objections to the policy are the question of funding and the question of work ethic. We can’t afford it, and people would stop working. But these are in fact the flimsiest of criticisms, easily addressed.

How would we pay for it? The most obvious way to fund a basic income would be through taxation. A modest program could likely be established now through existing taxes, with no increased tax burden for anyone. A much more intriguing approach would be to simply print more money. It may sound absurd, but some economists argue that a basic income could be generated in such a manner with few inflationary effects.

Why would people work? This objection rests on the idea that the only motivation to work is to earn a dollar and avoid starvation. It’s a rather brutal vision but it’s widely held. This view of work illustrates our profound alienation from our labor. It is in fact one of the problems that the basic income would help solve. The motivation to earn more dollars would still be there, with an improved standard of living as the reward. But the fact is that many people engage in work for other reasons. Some important work is inherently valuable and meaningful in its own right. There are few schoolteachers, for example, who are motivated by primarily by money. The basic income would simply give workers a bit of a cushion and a bit more leverage in negotiating the terms of their employment. But for the skeptics who fear people would leave the workforce in droves, there is a simple answer. The precise size of the basic income would be adjusted through our democratic process. If people aren’t working enough, lower the basic income. If the safety net isn’t providing the security we desire, raise the basic income.

Of course, the basic income would not solve all problems. People would still suffer from mental and physiological illnesses, for example. We would still need single-payer health care. But the basic income would be one important part of a better and more robust social safety net.

Resources and Selected Articles


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