In this age of automation, globalization, and stagnant wage growth, the concept that everyone should have a guaranteed minimum income has been gaining some policy momentum recently. Finland and Canada are running small pilot experiments, and Switzerland recently held a referendum on the idea (it failed, but did better than expected). A charity is conducting a large-scale test in Kenya and Uganda, and Silicon Valley, whose products may one day drive more and more workers out of a job, has also latched onto the concept.
The latest backer of the "universal basic income" concept is the Black Lives Matter movement.
A strong endorsement is included in a wide-ranging policy platform released this week by more than 50 organizations affiliated with the movement, in a section about reparations for "past and continuing harms."
"No other social or economic policy solution today would be of sufficient scale to eradicate the profound and systematic economic inequities affecting black communities," the platform states.
The groups endorse a basic income for everyone, noting that patterns and norms of "work" (quotations are in the document) are changing.
The Movement for Black Lives points out, correctly, that people of color and other disadvantaged populations will "bear the brunt of whatever economic insecurity and volatility results" from a new economy powered by automation. This is already happening. Black people already work disproportionately in low-paid and minimum-wage fields like retail and service work, and these are some of the professions that are at greatest risk for automation.
The platform gets concrete about how to fund such a massive program for all Americans, suggesting tax increases on the wealthy, taxes on CO2 emissions or particular industries, and a program modeled on the Alaska Permanent Oil Fund, which distributes revenues from state-owned oil resources to all Alaska residents. And the extra funds that would go to black people as reparations could come from money saved by divesting from criminal justice institutions, another one of their suggestions.
By providing a "basic floor" for people, a universal basic income would benefit some of the most vulnerable Americans, many of whom are black. The groups also believe it would be an improvement over the nation's current safety net, including food stamps—which are rife with paternalistic restrictions—and the earned income tax credit, which is tied to work, a problem when so many black people can’t find jobs. While the unemployment rate is down to 4.4% for whites today, it's still 9.2% for blacks.
Dorian T. Warren, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the Center for Community Change, who is listed as an author of this part of the platform, writes in an expanded paper that even an equal basic income—without the reparations—could disproportionately benefit black Americans, since white people earn so much more today.
Overall the Movement for Black Lives platform is extremely comprehensive and ambitious, covering policing, the death penalty, community control of the criminal justice system, and many other policy positions. Given that it's so untested in the United States, it will be interesting to see to what extent the movement focuses on the universal basic income idea as it moves to push for adoption of its platform.
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