The Case for Basic Income

by Jul 25, 2016Economy, Society, Technology

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These days, advances in technology are allowing us to do new and amazing things. But these advances can come with a cost: as technology is used for more and more purposes, it can disrupt the traditional labor model and put people out of work by automating their jobs. If this trend continues, we could be looking at wide-scale unemployment and drastic increases in inequality in the near future.

Universal basic income (or just “basic income”) is a simple idea that could have a radical impact on our society: give every American enough money to meet their basic needs.

While that may not appear too radical at first glance, there are a few key differences between basic income and traditional social programs that set it apart:

  1. Basic income is universal: Everyone would receive basic income, regardless of age, employment, or financial situation. It would be a fundamental right, rather than a form of welfare, removing any stigma that might exist for programs that are designed specifically for those in need.
  2. Basic income is simple: Everyone would receive the same amount of money through basic income, making it much simpler to administrate and leading to less bureaucracy than traditional means-tested programs.
  3. Basic income ends poverty: People are poor because they don’t have enough money to get by. If we provide everyone with enough funds to meet their basic needs, we can effectively eliminate poverty.

With a universal basic income, tech-driven unemployment wouldn’t be such a disaster — even if you lose your job, you can be sure you’ll be able to make ends meet, and will have time to figure out what’s the right next step for you, whether that’s doing part-time work in the gig economy, training to learn new skills, starting your own business, spending more time with your family, or whatever other pursuit you decide is best.

Advocating for a radical idea

While basic income has been receiving more attention in the last year, most people in the United States still have never heard of the concept. And because getting money without having to work for it is a very foreign concept in this country, it often takes more than traditional advocacy tactics to get people to seriously consider the idea and bring them on board.

The world’s largest poster, crowd-funded by the Swiss basic income campaign.

The world’s largest poster, crowd-funded by the Swiss basic income campaign.

A similar challenge was faced by campaigners for basic income in Switzerland — when they launched their efforts in 2013, support was very low, and many were dismissive of the idea. In order to raise awareness, the Swiss employed creative approaches, kicking off the campaign with a truck dumping 8 million coins in front of Parliament and rallying supporters to crowd-fund the creation of the biggest poster in the world. These tactics helped generate media attention and encouraged people to think about basic income in new and different ways.

While the Swiss vote for basic income ultimately failed to pass, the campaign managed to increase support by an impressive margin — polling in December 2015 showed only 11% planned to vote for basic income, but the vote in June saw 23% voting “yes.”

Harnessing the creativity of supporters

What would it look like to tap into the creativity not just of grasstops campaigners, but grassroots advocates as well? That’s what the Universal Income Project aimed to find out in late 2015. Our goal was to engage a larger group of supporters through a weekend of action in San Francisco that focused on collaborative, creative projects with the aim of raising awareness and support for basic income. We opted to call the event a Basic Income “Create-a-thon.”

Participants at the first-ever Basic Income Create-a-thon in San Francisco

Participants at the first-ever Basic Income Create-a-thon in San Francisco

Our intention was to democratize advocacy for the idea by allowing grassroots activists to use their skill sets and passion to inform what projects they worked on. Participants pitched their own ideas for these projects and then self-organized into groups that spent the weekend turning the ideas into reality.

The event was chaotic — there were tons of ideas pitched, some of which sounded pretty crazy to us, and the process of forming groups took several hours, with people adjusting their plans, hopping between groups, and merging similar projects together.

But giving people the opportunity to channel their creativity towards advancing basic income was a real motivator for supporters. By the end of the weekend, we’d ended up with a number of impressive, creative projects being produced (including some of the ideas that initially sounded crazy to us). These ranged from videos to web applications to policy analyses to crowdfunding campaigns.

Many participants from the San Francisco Create-a-thon have continued work on their projects even after the event, and we’ve since followed up with a Create-a-thon in Los Angeles, connecting and engaging supporters there. We’re now looking at organizing other Create-a-thons in cities around the country.

The conversation around basic income is just beginning, and people across the United States are starting to get involved. We’re eager to see what creative ideas people come up with in the months and years ahead.

About the Authors

jim-pughJim Pugh is a co-founder of the Universal Income Project, and has a Ph.D. in Distributed Robotics from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He is also founder and CEO of ShareProgress, a social-good technology startup, and lives in San Francisco.




SandhyaSandhya Anantharaman is a Co-Director of the Universal Income Project. She is an Obama alum, has a background in grassroots organizing in the South, and holds a degree in biomedical engineering from Georgia Tech. She currently works as a Data Scientist at ShareProgress.


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1 Comment

  1. I would gladly participate in a similar Basic Income Create-a-thon. I live in the Chicago area. I’ve spent most of my life contemplating this, because all I would really like to do is create and produce music, without dealing with the music business or supporting myself with a dead end job, or Uber.


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