Thinking Today: Universal Basic Income

Illustration of a 3-d white stick figure person sitting on the floor, thinking, with top of head tipped back to display gears for brains

I was thinking today about the idea of a Universal Basic Income.

The idea is that everyone would automatically get a fixed amount of money to live on from the government. The amount would be set so as to be just enough for a person to live on ... to pay for food, shelter, clothing, and maybe for transportation, education, and health care, unless those were available through a separate government benefit. Everyone would start out with enough to live on. If they wanted to live more luxuriously, if they wanted to buy more cool stuff, or travel, or pursue some bigger goals, they would work to make money above their Universal Basic Income.

This is an economic policy idea that seems far-fetched, but has theoretical support from both liberal and conservative economists. It's also being tested in a few places ... small parts of countries, states, cities, etc. The biggest technical question is whether a Universal Basic Income would cause people to stop working, and thereby reduce productivity and the tax base needed to pay for the benefit.

The most attractive thing about the idea is that you could eliminate almost all other social services that are currently designed to help only certain people, or that try to help poor people in less direct ways. A Universal Basic Income would also be really easy to run. All you need is an infrastructure to write a bunch of checks, or make a bunch of direct deposits. There's no need for bureaucracy to determine complicated eligibility or root out fraud and abuse, because everyone is eligible.

How would Universal Basic Income work for disabled people?

First, it could remove one of the most consistently annoying and harmful barriers we face ... having to qualify for assistance and maintain eligibility. The work disincentive would be GONE, and we would never have to prove our eligibility for services again.

On the other hand, would disabled people need a higher Universal Basic Income than everyone else, to meet our higher living expenses? Would giving us more violate an important aspect of the idea's appeal ... its universality?

Second, it would be an experiment in radical choice, something disabled people are often more attuned to than most people. With most traditional human service models erased, we would be free to use or money to purchase whatever we felt we'd need ... with or without counseling that purports to make us better, smarter, more motivated people in some way.

Again, we come back to how much money we would have. If the amount was too small to meet our higher cost needs, the lack of additional support could end up being terrible.

Maybe we should be thinking about a Universal Basic Income just for disabled people. It would be something like SSDI or SSI with eligbility based only on disability, not at all on income or employment status. I can forsee an escalating number of checkpoints and bureaucratic layers developing over time, but something like this idea seems worth exploring.

Here's an article that gives a good overview of Universal Basic Income, and provides links to further reading on the subject:

Two Canadian mayors want to launch an experiment that could change how we think about poverty forever
Dylan Matthews, - June 24, 2015