Democrats Should Begin to Study Universal Basic Income

Because Democrats continue to undergo an identity crisis following Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and the rising influence of the left wing of the Democratic Party, new ideas are needed to reinvigorate the party. The 2018 midterms are fast approaching, but Democrats are stuck in the muck reflecting on Donna Brazile’s impact on the election. Studying new economic ideas, like universal basic income, has the chance to reset the party’s economic message.

Universal basic income (UBI) generally consists of unconditionally giving citizens a set amount of tax-free money each month. According to the Basic Income Earth Network, a universal basic income is paid: periodically at regular intervals, as a cash payment, to individuals not households, universally and unconditionally.

The idea of UBI has existed for a long time and has gone through periods of varying popularity, but it is reemerging in the mainstream. It has been championed by Martin Luther King Jr. as a way to set a minimum standard of living and oddly by President Richard Nixon as a less-bureaucratic welfare spending.

Now, multiple nations and cities have begun limited basic income experiments. Finland recently began giving out a basic income to 2,000 randomly selected citizens. Utrecht, Netherlands and Barcelona, Spain have also approved studies. In the United States, Oakland and Stockton, California have approved studies, along with the state of Hawaii.

However, these studies are limited. In Finland, the study, which is the most expansive UBI study, is losing funding and interest from the government. The other studies are being conducted by municipalities and will be tough to extrapolate to a national stage. Furthermore, no empirical evidence from any study can be expected for a few years. Democrats should use this budget season, and the upcoming tax bill, to put in funding for a federally-based universal basic income study. They do not need to implement the controversial idea of basic income, but financing a study can go a long way in gathering data and showing the party’s interest in new ideas.

There are multiple reasons UBI could work in the United States. Mainly, it could help offset the almost 40 percent of jobs the United States could lose to automation by 2030. This automation aspect is the reason why tech leaders Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk already support the idea.

UBI could also serve as a type of job insurance as the unemployed or underemployed would not need to fear a loss of income. Current unemployment insurance in America does not last long and recipients must meet rather-narrowly defined conditions. Furthermore, a basic income could free people to quit dead-end jobs and pursue passion projects, which could create additional jobs and stimulate the economy.

The less-bureaucratic side of the universal basic income argument is one that the Democrats and Republicans have the all-too-rare potential to agree on. Instead of giving people suffering from poverty multiple different social programs such as food stamps, social security payments, and unemployment money, the government would give them an income without the current restrictions of welfare. The European Social Survey found opinions on universal basic income did not vary significantly by political ideology.

There are obvious drawbacks to the idea of universal basic income. First, there is currently no way of knowing the impact on the federal budget, as it significantly transforms welfare. It also raises other questions. What would people receiving basic income spend the money on? Would they save it? Or would they spend it on essentials, stimulating the economy? A federal study could help answer some of these questions.

Plus, some people would choose to live off the income without looking for employment. The idea of basic income is to only cover the bare essentials, so that ideally people could be freed up to find better jobs. However, there is a group of people who would not look for those jobs as the basic income is unconditional. A study could help find how much that number would increase under a UBI system.

Critics of UBI argue there is value to having a job. People want to work and value themselves by the work they do. The basic income is intended to allow people to find the jobs they want and give them the opportunity for a higher income, so any universal basic income would need to be messaged as a way to build jobs, not to supplant them.

There are many unanswered questions about UBI, but the idea has a lot of potential. Democrats should use the time before midterm elections to debate this idea and to give their economic messaging a much needed reboot. The way to begin is an expansive federally funded study. The Democrats may well find less opposition from Republicans than might be expected.

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