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A primer / by Dorothy Howard.

Universal basic income (UBI) is a social welfare provision and a form of social security that would provide all citizens (unconditionally) with a sufficient income to survive each month.

Universal basic income is meant to lessen the pressures of the current economy, which restricts access to adequate living conditions (housing, food, health care) and withholds people from having a high quality of life. UBI would also help counter the devaluation of immaterial digital labor and knowledge-work within the surging digital economy.

UBI encourages us to consider community health– policies that help us sleep better knowing that our loved ones will have adequate resources to sustain themselves, or if they are an art worker or creative class worker, that they have time and energy to sustain that passion.

Universal Basic Income might coexist with robust welfare and public services programs, including universal health care, free and well-funded primary and higher education, and universal pensions, but it can also exist independently of such measures.

Supporters of UBI come from a divergent set of political beliefs. Significant research and scholarship has been produced on the policy considerations of UBI and the sources of funds, and the city, municipality, state, and federal implementation of a Basic Income since the early 20th century.

A basic income has traditionally been supported by voices against homelessness and poverty. In this way, it can also be seen as also an initiative promoting women’s rights and racial justice, since economic constraints are weighted most heavily at the intersections of gender and race.

Some have argued that any implementation of universal basic income would be tied to immigration status, unfairly excluding undocumented peoples from the project of economic justice. The universal quality of any UBI policy is essential and an adequate basic income would be provided unconditionally to all residents regardless of citizenship or any other form of identification.

Why Should I Care About Universal Basic Income?

Universal Basic Income would provide more free time for citizens to enjoy a higher quality of life without the fatigue of having to work exhaustively to maintain basic human needs.

Universal basic income would also alleviate the burden of many who work to pay for the care, housing, and medical costs of close friends, or family members. Disability activist Mia Mingus mentions eldercare, for example, as key to proposing alternatives to the scarcity model of capitalism, as UBI attempts to do:

… Eldercare–taking care of our elders–is something that we absolutely need to do,” Mingus said in an interview with Bluestockings Magazine. “It’s a pivotal point of challenging capitalism, because such a driving force within capitalism is hoarding money or trying to get a retirement account, buy a house, or have kids to take care of us. It drives so much fear and feeds into such a scarcity model, the idea that there isn’t enough. If we took care of our elders and took that fear away–and it’s so closely tied into disability as well—it would free us up to do lots of other things with that time and those resources…”

Elders, along with many who need care would be greatly alleviated by a universal basic income. Still, too much time is wasted on scarcity models, assuming we lack resources and energy to create alternatives to the current order.

In addition to the obvious need for wealth distribution against egregious gaps between the rich and the poor, people should be paid for living in a society where they generate value just by being alive and participating in the current, data-driven economy. The rise of WikiLeaks and the Snowden revelations have revealed to us the integration of the surveillance state into the architectures of contemporary life. Citizens should receive something back for their mandatory participation in today’s dismal technological environment amidst its significant privacy infringements. And why not demand that what’s given back, in the form of high taxes on Silicon Valley, be social security and and social welfare provisions?


Universal Basic Income has had supporters across the political spectrum. It retains strong support amongst the social left: with endorsements amongst the Green Party, Marxist, and socialist groups, as well as the Pirate Party of Finland, supporting many of the active, contemporaneous basic income movements.

Yet UBI’s spectrum of support also reaches to libertarians and the political right wing. In 1962, Libertarian economist Milton Friedman defended the idea of a Graduated Minimum Income (GMI) to replace the existing social welfare system. George McGovern ran for the U.S. presidency with a guaranteed annual income, what he called a ‘demogrant’, on his platform in 1972. Libertarians have also been known to support an implementation of a Basic Income Tax or “Negative Income Tax” where the amount allotted to a person would be reduced as their income went up.

The concept has been endorsed by nobel laureate economists, including James Meade, James Tobin, Herbert Simon, Friedrich Hayek, Jan Tinbergen, and Robert Solow (Yap 2014), and anarcho-economist David Graber.

Bertrand Russell proposed a basic income in 1918 in his Proposed Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism and Syndicalism.

The growing transhumanist and accelerationist groups, too, are supportive of UBI as it would be a necessary tenant of a society ruled by the replacement of human knowledge work and thinking with machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Perhaps this contestation at the policy and implementation level can be read as an exciting turn pointing to a potentially non-partisan effort that might be able to cut across party lines- an opportunity rather than a breaking point.

Recent Organizing for Universal Basic Income

There are multiple precedents where universal basic income has been implemented as political policy:

From 1974–1979 there was an experimental pilot project for basic income established in Dauphin, Manitoba, named MINCOME. The study found new mothers and teenagers worked less, and hospital visits dropped, among other things.

Alaska was the first U.S. State to implement a partial U.S. income. its Permanent Fund Dividend (“Alaska Dividend”), established in 1982 after being voted in by the state legislature. The Alaska Dividend as of 2014, is $1884/ year and comes directly from state oil dividends. The Alaska model is particularly interesting because it is about distributing some of the financial gain that companies have had in exploiting natural resources like oil, land, rainforests. Even if natural resources are owned by municipalities in the way that the water supply is owned and wildlife is owned, natural resources belong to all of us, especially insofar as the private exploitation of natural resources harms all of us (rising sea levels, global warming).

The global, Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), founded in 1986, now has affiliates in 20 countries.

In 2002, the Namibian Basic Income Grant Coalition established a pilot project in the Namibian village of Omitara (or Otjivero-Omitara). It was found to have significantly increased income above the amount from grants, and to have decreased malnutrition and decreased overall crime rates by 42%.

In Brazil, the Citizen’s Basic Income (Renda Básica de Cidadania a/k/a RBC) was established as law in 2004 after being voted up by all parties in both houses in the National Congress.

In India, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union for women in India founded by the Gandhian and civil rights leader Dr Ela Bhatt, received funding in 2010 from UNICEF to pilot Universal Basic Income grants in eight villages in Madhya Pradesh.

In France in 2012 a group of citizens launched a transpartisan network in an attempt to join forces for raising awareness about basic income in France. This network aim at participating to the European citizens initiative that is set to be launched in 2013.

In Switzerland Fall 2014, activists dumped eight million coins outside Parliament, one for each Swiss citizen, also gathering more than 130,000 citizens’ to sign a petition calling for a referendum on basic income as a constitutional right. The referendum is set for 2016, with one current basic income level proposed at 2,500 Swiss francs (about USD 2650 in 2015) per month.

There are also significant hurdles that need to be overcome in order for immaterial digital labor to be recognized in policy changes, by the state. The welfare industry has become a cash cow for all sorts of private interests. Corruption and payoffs have become so common today in American politics as to pose formidable barriers toward the federal implementation of UBI. It has already been made clear by previous policy failures that the far right will do anything and everything in its power to obstruct any and all ‘socialized’ welfare measures from passing. This was seen in the defeat of the 1993 Clinton Health Care Plan, (the “Health Security Act”) by the massive spending of conservative policy groups and lobbies funded by private interests and the privatized health care industry.

Universal Basic Income remains one of our most pressing, needed policies to help lower the egregious gaps between the rich and the poor by taxing Silicon Valley, and redistributing wealth to support healthy communities and a better quality of life to those currently struggling.

For more information on local organizing around universal basic income, you can follow or contact directly Basic Income New York City, or the U.S. political organization, Basic Income Action (based in Washington, D.C.).

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