Universal Basic Income: A Not-so Radical Proposal for the Future

Image created by Catherine Cordasco — Unsplash

This week, the United Nations General Assembly — a yearly highlight for many diplomats that displays the world’s connectedness — is taking place in a virtual manner. Speeches are displayed in the General Assembly Hall, which makes this year’s edition quite different since the discussions that really matter happen in the corridors of the UN secretariat and downtown Manhattan restaurants. But on occasion a speech is made that draws your attention. The opening remarks of the UN Secretary General was the first to surprise me once again.

António Guterres has been throwing out back-to-back surprises in his speeches lately, the most recent when he said, “The COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating what we all know: millennia of patriarchy have resulted in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture which damages everyone — women, men, girls and boys.” This type of language isn’t the sort we often hear from the Chief of the United Nations. It was so surprising it even led to some backlash on social media.

Counter criticism because, maybe, because he’s 100% right?

At the opening of the 75th session of the General Assembly, Mr. Guterres elaborated how COVID-19 recovery efforts should lead to a better future starting now. Traditional blueprints to follow were repeated like the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 2030 Agenda and Paris Agreement combined with a new social contract, plus solutions we’ve heard before. But then he mentioned “the possibility of a Universal Basic Income.” With that phrase he planted a little seed that hopefully will grow into a big sturdy tree. Why? Because I am unequivocally in favor of Universal Basic Income (UBI) if humanity hopes to eradicate poverty and inequality in the next few decades.

UBI is commonly defined as, “An income paid by a community to all its members on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement.” There have been conversations about UBI since the 1960’s and earlier and the issue gained a lot of traction before COVID-19, mainly around 2000 when automatization increased. Robots replacing assembly line workers, artificial intelligence (AI) replacing bank tellers, long and short-haul truck drivers soon to be replaced by self-driving vehicles. There was hope that UBI would be adopted sooner rather than later, by all economies, to mitigate the loss in jobs brought about by seismic shifts in technology. This article will not go into detail on the pros and cons of UBI since there are countless articles and publications that consider possibilities based on empirical experiments. Two I can recommend include:

· The War on Normal People, written by former US presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, who created a platform built around UBI called the ‘Freedom Dividend’

· Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy by Philippe Van Parijs, Professor of Economic and Social Ethics and Yannick Vanderborght, Professor of Political Sciences.

It seems if you write a book on UBI it’s impossible to hide your opinion because your views are in the title.

COVID-19 has brought the topic of UBI back to the fore, where it belongs. The World Economic Forum (WEF) is clear on their position, laid out in the article, “Universal basic income is the answer to the inequalities exposed by COVID-19.” This is just one of 130,000 articles that pop up when typing “universal basic income” and “COVID” in the search bar of Google News. Most are from the last few weeks. Momentum is growing as UBI adversaries have been forced to rethink their opinion or pretend that traditional measures implemented are a version of UBI when they are far from it. A main critique the WEF piece overturns is the one where politicians, civil servants, and executives claim UBI would decrease people’s incentive to work. Apart from the fact that a willingness to work is a current challenge (often impossible due to lockdowns) this critique has been largely debunked in the face of growing evidence. When considered, it’s more of an ethical, philosophical argument than an economic one.

To mitigate the impact of COVID-19 several countries have set up initiatives (for an overview of previous experiments see here and the website of the Basic Income Earth Network), one of the largest in Spain where a project will support 850,000 households — the largest test yet of UBI. Tuvalu has instituted a fully-fledged temporary universal basic income program. And the United States? The stimulus check worth $1,200 given to more than 88 million individuals, could de facto, be seen as a type of temporary basic income. A popular suggestion during the pandemic, temporary basic income is being considered as a way of combatting challenges during times of crisis. A temporary measure for the world’s poorest 2.7 billion people in 132 developing countries would slow the spread of the coronavirus by allowing them to stay home, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

While UBI is still uncharted territory given the limited number of pilots, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to researchers and economists devising more ambitious plans for UBI. In Kenya, a large-scale experiment launched earlier this year shows that UBI significantly improved well-being, measured through hunger, sickness and depression indicators. UBI may also have resulted in public health benefits, with reductions in hospital visits and decreased social (but not commercial) interactions that lowered contagion rates. Although some UBI recipients lost income gains because of starting new enterprises when the pandemic hit they also suffered less experience with hunger. This pattern is consistent with the idea that UBI recipients take on more income risk by mitigating harmful consequences of external shocks.

The evidence is mounting: UBI has the potential to serve as a boost to local and national economies, and the resilience and morale of people. It might be the lesser evil we need during COVID-19, but a solution we should continue to embrace once we’re out of the woods with the pandemic. What’s the alternative in a world where humans are (in real time) being replaced by robots in the workplace and where we need to move away from current economic models driven by production and consumption? If we continue to measure progress by GDP the climate will continue to collapse a little more every week, putting the future of our children in even greater danger.

Universal Basic Income is an accessible response to support individuals, foster innovation and creativity, and strengthen the collective. We are part of the communities we inhabit, remember?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and policies of the United Nations.

Chief, Policy and Innovation, United Nations Development Coordination Office