“We set up a tent in the woods,” Bonnie said. “My husband will get money for us to eat.” We sat outside, sharing coffee and I asked how they became homeless. She begged at the off-ramp, held a cardboard sign and occasionally plucked a dollar dangled from a car window.
In New York City, the poor increasingly camp on sidewalks or in parks. In the nation at large, millions are at risk of eviction. The CARES Act, the first stimulus package during the pandemic, prevented masses of people from losing their homes and falling into poverty. It was emergency stopgap legislation whose effects have worn off. Another stimulus bill will not be enough.
We need Universal Basic Income (UBI), which is the cash transfer from the government to all or nearly all of its citizens. It is unconditional. It is consistent. In the middle of a global financial meltdown, it can stop poverty from destroying another generation and maybe repair the damage of the past.
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The ongoing crisis of COVID-19 laid waste the economy. For many, life pre-pandemic was already a catastrophe. Alongside plagues are growing dangers like climate change and widening wealth inequality. It is unsustainable — sheer folly, really — to imagine society can hold up under those pressures. Yet a practical solution stares us in the face. Free money for everyone.
State of Emergency
This spring in New York, ambulances wailed day and night to pick up the sick and dying. COVID-19 tore through the region. In February, Wall Street crashed. In March, the city shut down. Restaurants and airports, cinemas and clubs closed. The rest of the nation followed and 3.3 million filed for unemployment that month alone.
In order to keep the economy alive, on March 27, Congress passed and Trump signed the CARES Act, a stimulus bill that along with corporate giveaways, gave a $1,200 one-time check and $600 a week unemployment benefit. It helped families and whole neighborhoods. Now, seven months later, the U.S. presidential election has ended with the victory of President-elect Joe Biden, just as the country hit a morbid milestone of 10 million COVID-19 cases while a third wave cuts a deadly swath through the land. Compounding that crisis, the fight over a new stimulus bill has intensified as a gridlocked Senate takes shape. The proposed HEROES Act would continue where the CARES Act left off with another round of $1,200 checks and the $600 a week employment benefit. It will not be enough.
The economic ruin is worse than is known. New York’s eviction ban was just renewed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo for 90 days, but around the country, evictions rise as landlords find loopholes in the law. Not only will current rent be due but back rent too. A recent Truthout essay warned of the immense wave of debt that is looming over masses of people. According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly 23 million adults face hunger, which spills over to 7 to 11 million children whose stomachs twist in knots from lack of food. The highest unemployment is concentrated in the lowest-paying jobs. Running through all of this is the evidence of structural racism as Blacks and Latinos face the worst conditions.
Every day that goes by, more people fall into poverty as the rich get wealthier. The CARES Act kept Americans afloat but its effects have expired and the economy is still in shambles. Since April, an estimated 8 million have become destitute. The real unemployment rate is hidden behind selective reporting, which often uses the U-3 category of those looking for new work, rather than the U-6 which counts discouraged and part-time workers. According to a Forbes article, turning to the 26 million unemployment insurance claims in September gives a clearer picture of how many people face deep poverty. A startling reality becomes visible. The U.S. is at a 16 percent unemployment rate, just 4 percentage points shy of what economist Paul Krugman described as “Depression level.” Even as so many people struggle to eat or pay rent, the top 1 percent hoard massive amounts of wealth. Just three famous billionaires — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet — collectively own more wealth than the bottom half of all Americans.
In real flesh and blood language, it means right now a family is being kicked out of their home by a constable. Right now, a parent is counting pennies to pay for gas. Right now, a child is waking up to a new life of fear, hunger and shame. But none of this has to happen.
Money for Nothing
“I thought Universal Basic Income was a good idea,” said 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang to Bloomberg QuickTake. “But it’s more urgent than ever. It’s literally life and death.”
During the presidential campaign, Yang generated buzz by promoting UBI on talk shows, speeches and town halls. He called it the Freedom Dividend in which each citizen got $1,000 a month. The idea of UBI goes back to Thomas Paine’s 1797 pamphlet “Agrarian Justice” that called for money to be given to all citizens, and to the fiery Sen. Huey Long’s Share the Wealth program in the 1930s. In 1966, it was the capstone of the civil rights movement when Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph proposed the Freedom Budget. The right-wing eugenicist Charles Murray has also advocated UBI to replace welfare programs, a position shared in part by Yang. Murray and Yang’s position is a cynical one that would leave individuals with cash but not enough to replace the social support taken away.
What drove UBI from the margins to the center of politics are the crises each generation has faced. The oldest one is poverty, whether in Appalachia or Harlem. Even before the pandemic, wage stagnation had since the 1970s eroded the lives of workers who faced international competition and high-tech machines cutting the need for human labor. Now the long-term economic effect of COVID-19 could be millions desperate for work, who will accept low wages, and internalize rage at failing the “American Dream.” The previous factor of mechanization will pick up speed and hit a tipping point.
A report by McKinsey & Company said that by 2030, a moderate rate of automation could lead to 400 million jobs displaced by robots or 800 million at a fast rate. How are the masses of people going to live when the work they can get is low paying and part time? Another existential danger is climate change, which will bring rising seas, droughts and fires that will cause interrupted supply chains, damaged infrastructure and more expensive food. How are people to work when train tracks are flooded or fiber optic cables are damaged by higher tides?
Is the solution to the crisis-filled future stimulus bill after stimulus bill? How many are passed before a society stumbles into UBI? Without waiting for a catastrophe, some municipalities have begun experimenting with small-scale versions. The cities of Hamilton in Canada, Barcelona in Spain and Stockton in California led the way, and now nine mayors of U.S. cities from Los Angeles to Newark joined Mayors for a Guaranteed Income to push for pilot programs and share data.
“The pandemic exposed just how fragile the economic underpinnings of our society are,” said Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs. “COVID-19 has put us in the midst of another Great Depression which necessitates bold, New Deal-type investments in our people.”
Poverty Is Also a Pandemic
Is there a quick fix for our current crisis? No. The slate of COVID-19 vaccines could be ready by the end of the year, but even then, it must be distributed in phases to essential front-line workers first and then eventually to the public at large. No vaccine can undo the damage left by COVID-19 like depression or debt or poverty.
During my conversation with Bonnie, she told me how invisible she felt. “Rich people look right past you,” she said. “They don’t give you nothing. Poor people have more heart. They’ll give me a $20 [bill]. They know what it’s like to be hungry.”
UBI would help heal these invisible wounds. It could replenish faith in society. It could give back a sense of safety that the pandemic destroyed. Imagine waking up and seeing $1,000 in your bank account. Imagine the good feeling when you can pay your rent, or put gas in the car or buy food and after your needs are met, you calmly think about how to move on with life. Imagine knowing your child will never have to go hungry, or your grandparent without medicine. Imagine another world is possible.