In 2020, Andrew Yang focused his presidential campaign on “The Freedom Dividend”—a Universal Basic Income (UBI). Although Yang’s candidacy (and proposal) came to nothing, the idea of a guaranteed income is still relevant, and cities are experimenting with a more modest version of it. But these modest programs will not reform the welfare state or bring about the big changes needed to tackle inequality in cities and the nation.
highlighted the issue today, saying Guaranteed Income, ‘sometimes called Universal Basic Income’, is being piloted by cities. The story says more than 48 programs have been launched by cities in the past two years, citing the advocacy group Mayors for a guaranteed income.
This group calls for an “income floor through guaranteed income”, listing 81 mayors in favor, although not all have pilot programs. These programs are smaller than Yang’s UBI proposal, which demanded $12,000 a year “for every American adult over the age of 18”.
Are cities, victims of economic inequality and discrimination, trying again to create their own welfare states? My next book for Columbia University Press, unequal cities, argues that the structural political and economic disadvantages of cities virtually prevent them from doing this on their own, even though they have pressing fiscal and social needs.
It obscures public debate to call these modest, targeted programs “universal basic income,” as if they could benefit everyone and provide enough income to live on. In fact, these pilot municipal programs are targeted income supports for a small number of low-income people, often focusing on those with very young children. As such, they resemble modest anti-poverty programs rather than the radical nature of UBI’s proposals.
Some UBI proponents envision a world where work becomes essentially voluntary. But most don’t go that far. The main disagreement is whether the UBI would complement or replace existing welfare state social programs.
In 2016, the former progressive labor leader Andy Stern and conservative lawyer Charles Murray the two made separate proposals for a UBI between $12,000 and $13,000 per year. But Stern’s proposal would bolster health care and other social supports, while Murray’s book was captioned ‘A Plan to Replace the Welfare State’. Murray and other libertarian UBI advocates would eliminate a wide range of income, childcare, health, housing, and other programs and convert the funds into a cash payment.
None of the current urban income programs go so far, in terms of universal coverage, income levels, or (in Murray’s case) elimination of social programs to obtain funding. One of the few to approach the annual goal of $12,000 is Los Angeles BIG:LEAP Program“providing approximately 3200 people with $1000 per month for 12 months.”
Most municipal programs are more modest; you can see a detailed map to the mayor’s project. From St Paul “People’s Prosperity Pilot” initially provided 150 families with a total of $9,000 over 18 months. (A new round will offer more funding as well as deposits in college savings accounts.) Gainesville, Fla. launch “Just returned GNV,” providing up to $7,600 over one year to 115 “justice-affected people” (people released from jail or jail or on probation for a crime).
And the programs are often not funded by basic (and often strained) municipal tax revenues. Los Angeles and St. Paul used federal COVID-related funds, while Gainesville was funded by private donors. Foundations and private donors are an important part of the dynamics of RUB and guaranteed income. The Jain Family Institute is a leader in both pilot support and research and evaluation sponsorship, while former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey provided $15 million in support.
And even progressives don’t offer universal support for a universal basic income. In a paper 2016, I discussed the practical and philosophical concerns about UBI that concern me and many other anti-poverty advocates. These include the conservative desire to reduce or eliminate the welfare state, US political opposition to the decoupling of work from government support, and whether guaranteed employment programs could be a best alternative to combat chronic poverty and unemployment.
But we are not at a UBI moment. Cities do not really implement the universal basic income, the Time story notwithstanding. They use federal and private philanthropic funds to explore time-limited and modest payments to low-income people. There is a continuous flow of evaluation research on these programs, and we will learn from it.
I expect the main impact of these city-based pilots to be small improvements in the way we provide needed cash assistance to poor households with children. They fail to deliver on the promise of a major revolution in how cities – or the nation – will design and finance a more expansive welfare state and a more egalitarian society. These critical goals will require fiscal resources and political support far beyond the modest guaranteed income programs that cities are currently rolling out.