Will Your Universal Basic Income Check Soon Be in the Mail?

A Future Tense event recap.

A woman wearing a T-shirt counts dollar bills.
UBI wouldn’t mean people don’t have to work—it would just make it easier for them to do work they find rewarding.
Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

While “fully automated luxury communism” may still be far off in the future, the idea that the government can make living more comfortable for its citizens is very much a fact today. At a Sept. 12 event called “Will Your Universal Basic Income Check Soon Be in the Mail?” Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—convened a panel of writers and experts to discuss the feasibility of universal basic income and how it might affect the future of work in a world where “So, what do you do?” is standard get-to-know-you chitchat.

National UBI is often heralded as a key solution to address our changing economy as more and more jobs are being lost to automation. But moderator Luke Tate, assistant vice president and executive director of opportunity initiatives in the Office of the President at Arizona State University, asked the panelists whether UBI would effectively let industries off the hook for inventing people out of jobs. Susanna Groves, a senior budget analyst for the Council of the District of Columbia, noted she had great skepticism when she first began to research UBI, as much of the UBI movement is funded by tech industrialists who also drive increased automation. But after conducting research into the cost of living and the effects of UBI, she recognized the myriad benefits that come with UBI. She stressed the importance of looking at UBI from an equality perspective: “We should come up with solutions for problems now, and not come up with solutions for problems that might be created in the next 10 years.”

One of the biggest takeaways from the event, however, was that UBI isn’t just about the growing specter of automation and unemployment. Groves pointed out that Washington is not exactly a city known for manufacturing. Nevertheless, it has been looking into UBI, specifically to help address income inequality. The district, which has taken steps to increase the minimum wage, recently undertook an analysis of the cost of living and found that a single-parent family with two children would need nearly $97,000 to meet basic needs. Groves stressed that we need to ask ourselves, “What more do we need to do to stabilize family income?” Writer and strategist Sebastian Johnson added that there must be “work that people can derive meaning from, that they can support themselves on, but also where they see some path towards actualization.”

The speakers agreed that UBI would be significantly different than existing welfare programs—for one thing, they wouldn’t have the intense social stigma that cash-welfare programs have. “If everyone’s getting it,” as Groves said, “then nobody’s wrong for taking it.” Annie Lowrey, the author of Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World, argued that a national UBI would circumvent unnecessary and often humiliating means-testing for welfare programs but also included that “it’s not popular to say that we’re going to make [public assistance] easy for folks, because there’s so much judgment on poor people.”

Despite their enthusiasm for the idea of UBI and the conversation that has started, the speakers acknowledged that there are significant barriers to widespread implementation, ranging from basic political arguments to complex organizational challenges. Lowrey is skeptical of claims that UBI has “bipartisan” support: She pointed out the libertarian view of UBI seems to be focused on reducing the size and scope of government services. She stressed that two of the primary arguments for UBI are at odds, with one side advocating for a larger welfare state and a more inclusive, equitable economy and the other advocating for a slimmed-down, bare-bones government. Johnson and Groves argued that a high-tax burden is necessary to raise money for UBI and that the jury is still out as to whether people are willing to shoulder that cost.

Although many of the barriers to UBI seem insurmountable, they don’t preclude the discussion of the steps we can take to end poverty and create a more inclusive economy. Lowrey described the importance of access and ability in terms of participation in society and our often-prismatic view of inequality, using the example of how those living in poverty are better off than they would be 50 years ago, but they still can’t afford the basics today. “Just getting people above the poverty line is great,” said Lowrey, “but I just believe we need to think more about creating a society in which everyone has a chance.”