Domestic Affairs

Universal Basic Income Doesn’t Really Have Political Viability

The novel coronavirus pandemic introduced many new ideas to the world, including quarantine, Zoom University, rapidly developed vaccines, a spike in social media activism, and a fiery election cycle that destabilized the United States in unforeseen ways. However, COVID-19 also brought a much older idea back to the political scene: universal basic income. The Freedom Dividend, for example, gained national attention as a signature policy position of 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang. Though Yang only received a small portion of the American vote, his candidacy reignited this decades-old idea supported by prominent social leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. Universal Basic Income has been explored globally through small-scale pilot programs in Spain, Alaska, and India. The stimulus checks distributed earlier this year, a form of basic income, may have been a highly contentious issue in Congress, but an overwhelming majority of the American public supported the direct cash payments. Does this mean that Universal Basic Income has strong political viability? The answer is less clear cut. 

While the CARES Act stimulus payments have seen wild popularity, UBI does not enjoy the same support among the public. In a poll conducted by Pew Research, only 45% of American voters support the proposition, with 62% of Republicans strongly against it and only 33% of Democrats strongly in favor. The popularity also changes depending on race, age, and income, and typically there is far less support amongst older Americans: so far, 72% of them are against the proposition.

It is projected that “a universal payment of $12,000 per year to each adult U.S. resident over age 18 would cost roughly $3 trillion per year.” This steep price would also encompass almost 75% of the federal budget. A cost-effective UBI would require decreasing the amount of each payment or narrowing the pool of citizens eligible, which would work directly against its universality. 

With a cost so high, it is reasonable to expect a plethora of evidence of UBI’s proven success in combating job loss and improving quality of life, but those results are underwhelming at best. Results in Alaska showed minimal changes in employment, and while some results show increased levels of happiness, it is hard to convince American voters that the $3 trillion price tag for UBI is worth it. 

Additionally, UBI has the potential adverse effect of harming the population it seeks to assist. Poorer Americans are predicted to be hurt rather than helped by Universal Basic Income. To be effective under modern standards for universal basic income, UBI in the U.S. would have to consume a significant portion of the national budget. Social programs like Medicare, food stamps, and social security would all take a massive blow, or worse, would be completely dissolved to fund a Universal Basic Income. Often, these benefits offer more to recipients than $1200 a month would. UBI would essentially need to eradicate food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid and Medicare, child care assistance, and a wide variety of other vital social programs that have proven to eliminate child malnutrition and poverty. These programs receive criticism for inefficiency, but they have pulled tens of thousands out of poverty. The question is not if the welfare system is flawed—it largely is—but if reforming it would be better than reallocating its resources to UBI. Due to the lack of research supporting the efficacy of UBI, it is more politically responsible to focus efforts on improving existing policies than implementing new ideas with little backing. 

Universal Basic Income is an interesting concept, but before jumping onto the UBI train, consider the viability of it on the political scene and whether time might be better spent advocating for other essential programs like universal healthcare. Perhaps directing time, energy, and funding towards pushing those reforms and additions to social welfare will be more productive than Universal Basic Income. On the other hand, maybe something new and fresh is what we need to revitalize our broken system. Either way, the political reality is evident: UBI does not seem to be politically viable, but there are plenty of other social programs that are.

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