When Ivanka Trump recently went after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal by suggesting that the “idea of a guaranteed minimum is not something most people want” because “people want to work for what they get,” it was difficult not to gag. Here was the recipient of a fortune inherited from a tax-dodging father waxing on about the American work ethic as if she had any idea about what most Americans want. This level of ignorance and hypocrisy was, of course, hardly surprising coming from a member of the Trump family.
But instead of quickly dismissing her statement and moving on, it might be more productive to take this opportunity to open a wider public discussion on exactly what Ivanka Trump was referring to when she talked about a “guaranteed minimum.” It could be a reference to a minimum wage or job guarantee — but it feels a bit more general than that. What she seems to have been saying is that she doesn’t think Americans want guaranteed protections that will keep them from falling below a certain threshold of economic security.
One of the “guaranteed minimums” found in the Green New Deal is what’s referred to by the authors of the policy as “basic income programs.” Known to most as a universal basic income, the idea is quite simple: pay people just for being alive. As the reaction by Ivanka and a number of right-wing outlets suggest, it might sound a bit outrageous at first, but it’s actually one of those ideas that begins to seem more and more sensible once you really start thinking about it. So what is a universal basic income anyways, and why was it in, of all places, a climate change policy proposal?
The Rise of Unconditional Cash
Although the idea goes as far back as at least the 16th century when Thomas More argued for a guaranteed income in his sociopolitical satire Utopia, universal basic income really entered the realm of policy in the late 1960s. Of all people, Richard Nixon actually floated the idea of giving every family in the United States $1,600 a year — which would be the equivalent of $10,000 today. The proposal didn’t have a very long political life, but there were a series of smaller pilot programs implemented throughout North America around that time that did end up having a lasting impact.
Perhaps the most well-known example was the Mincome project that came out of Canada in the 1970s. Mincome was a form of universal basic income known as a negative income tax — which is basically a top-up if your income dips below a certain amount. The experiment occurred in a few towns in Manitoba, including the town of Dauphin, where lower-income households were guaranteed a minimum income regardless of whether the residents worked or not. The data from the experiment were actually lost for decades until Dr. Evelyn Forget of the University of Manitoba came across the data in a stack dusty boxes. At the time, Dr. Forget was conducting research on the area of health and poverty, and up until she stumbled across the data from Mincome, the results had only been published in a labor market analysis that did not gain much attention. Initially, the results weren’t all that surprising — Mincome was giving people the space to engage in necessary activities that most workplaces don’t provide.
“People used the Mincome stipend to buy themselves longer maternity leaves, longer parental leaves. Teenage boys also reduced the number of hours they worked,” Dr. Forget told Truthout. At the time, many adolescent boys from low-income families were under quite a bit of family pressure to enter the workforce so that they could earn money — taking the burden of support off of the rest of the family.
“When Mincome came along, some of those families decided that they could support their sons in high school a little bit longer,” Forget said. “So those boys were working fewer hours, because instead of leaving school at the age of 16 and taking a job, they were staying in high school and some of them were graduating during that period.”
Some of the results from the Mincome experiment served to contradict many of our societal assumptions about welfare and work, demonstrating that providing individuals with unconditional cash could actually lead them to work more, not less. Many low-income individuals and families used their stipend to provide themselves and their families with opportunities that would not have been available to them otherwise — opportunities that privileged individuals like Ivanka Trump often seem to take for granted.
Dr. Forget relayed the story of a single mother of two who decided to use her Mincome stipend to pay for job training at a local community college: “When I spoke to her, she had just retired after many years as a district librarian in the public system,” Forget said. “She was incredibly proud of having modeled a different kind of a life for her daughters, and she was very grateful to Mincome for giving her that opportunity.”
The Mincome project, along with many other experiments, dispels the myth that giving money to people results in laziness or a lack of motivation. In fact, it turns out the opposite is true — receiving some form of universal basic income actually frees people up to pursue opportunities that ultimately allow them to contribute to society in more effective ways.
The Mincome project ended somewhat abruptly after a new conservative administration took power in Canada and cut the funding, and universal basic income faded from the political conversation in North America in a more general way until relatively recently. But the looming threat of mass unemployment as a result of job automation has brought the topic back into the fray, and it’s being discussed prominently in the tech sector, where Silicon Valley billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have actually come out in support of some form of universal basic income.
Meanwhile, the activists and academics who have been pushing for the idea for years, such as Kathi Weeks and the late Erik Olin Wright, have made huge contributions in exploring how universal basic income could be a key component in advancing all sorts of movements, from Marxism to feminism. Organizations like Basic Income Earth Network have been working since the 1980s to offer education to the wider public about universal basic income by organizing public conferences and promoting research. So now that the public debate is beginning to take shape again in a major way, there’s a strong foundation already in place.
An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Although economists disagree on the severity of potential unemployment due to automation,
it is precisely around the issue of jobs that universal basic income and climate change overlap. One of the aspects of the Green New Deal that sets it apart from the more neoliberal brand of climate policy is its focus on a “just transition” – something glaringly absent from most climate change policies to date. For example, when French President Emmanuel Macron imposed a gas and diesel tax on French consumers last year, the result was an eruption of protests, demonstrations and riots which seized the city for months and ultimately forced the administration to reverse its policy. The response by the French public demonstrated that any policy aimed at reducing carbon emissions cannot put a disproportionate burden on the backs of the poor and working classes.
The Green New Deal, in contrast, has a whole set of proposals that are explicitly designed to benefit low-income and traditionally marginalized communities in the transition to a fully decarbonized economy — and a universal basic income is one of these progressive proposals.
Although it raised a lot of eyebrows when it was included as part of a comprehensive Green New Deal, a progressive universal basic income would make a whole lot of sense as part of a broader climate policy. As last year’s landmark report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned, “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” A transition of this scope must include specific policies that address the stability and security to those affected.
“What we’re aiming to undertake here is a radically ambitious transition of our entire economy,” Jim Pugh told Truthout. Pugh is co-founder and co-director of the Universal Income Project, an organization that works to raise awareness and support for universal basic income by, among other things, hosting “create-a-thons” that bring together artists and community members to create content and media around the theme of universal basic income. The group is putting together a create-a-thon centered on the Green New Deal this month in Oakland, California. “It’s a necessary transition, but as with any systemic reform, it’s going to really disrupt a lot of people’s lives who are engaged in work that may not make sense anymore or that will look very different than it did before,” Pugh said.
This transition would include, of course, a complete dismantling of the fossil fuel economy — including all of the jobs that this sector currently provides. But it’s not just the fossil fuel sector — any transition this large is bound to have far-reaching effects that are difficult to understand this early on in the process.
“There are different ideas for what the best policy might be,” Pugh said. “But if we just try to pick and choose targets, we’re going to end up missing some groups — we’ve seen that again and again when we attempt to do these targeted approaches. A particularly simple option would be to provide a guaranteed income to everyone in the country, that way we can ensure that during this massive transition, we are keeping everyone up above a certain level — that we’re not letting people fall into poverty in the process.”
Universal basic income might make more sense than something like a federal jobs guarantee (which is also part of the Green New Deal proposal) because it would reduce the amount of unnecessary work that takes place in society — what anthropologist David Graeber has referred to as “bullshit jobs.” From getting people out of their cars during rush hour to reducing the incentive for individuals to engage in environmentally harmful work, a universal income could have a significant impact on carbon emissions by decoupling work from wages.
It’s important to note that there isn’t just one version of universal basic income. In fact, the idea can become vastly different — and even quite regressive — depending on how it is implemented. For example, if the amount given through a universal basic income is not high enough to survive on, it could end up serving as a subsidy for low-wage employers who could avoid paying a living wage because their employees would be receiving government cash transfers. Instead of reducing inequality, this form of universal basic income could actually lead to higher levels of inequality, especially if the funding for this unconditional cash is coming from a regressive form of taxation, like a sales tax, that would disproportionately put most of the burden of funding a universal basic income onto the backs of the already poor. In this kind of scenario, universal basic income might provide a floor under which individuals couldn’t fall, but it would do nothing to stem the vast accumulation of wealth and power that is concentrated at the top.
Depending on what form it takes, universal basic income also threatens to serve as a sort of Trojan horse for libertarians who have their sights set on dismantling public services entirely and replacing them with cash transfers that individuals would use to purchase services through private markets. Things like welfare programs, public housing, health care, and in some extreme cases, even public education spending would be cut entirely and replaced by a basic income.
As we’re already seeing, the further privatization of essential services such as health care and public education would have devastating consequences, and any form of universal basic income that replaces state programs is a non-starter for most on the left.
But if done correctly, a universal basic income could play a key role in not just facilitating a just transition to a carbon-free economy, but in providing real economic security for many marginalized communities in the United States.
“I think it’s important in this moment to really think boldly about where we’re going,” Pugh said. “Universal basic income, the Green New Deal and some of these other proposals that people are starting to float out there really get at some of the underlying systemic changes in a big way. There’s an alignment across a number of issues that recognizes the status quo is not doing what it needs to be doing, and so I think that it’s a very natural thing to be bringing these efforts together in solidarity.”