Editors Note: This Forum is available as our spring 2017 print issue. We are pleased to make it freely available online thanks to the generous support of the Cameron Schrier Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Please help us continue to make content like this open access by becoming a member!

Over the past eighteen months, in my recent capacity as Director of Campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy, I have had many conversations with organizers and leaders at base-building organizations in black and Latino working-class communities. They have been exploring various policies that will enable the members of their communities to find employment that provides family-sustaining income, require employers to respect their workers’ rights, and require that corporations contribute their fair share to the communities in which they operate. In short, these organizations are working to rebalance power.

A basic income needs to redistribute wealth and power.

Basic income has been a part of these conversations because of the possibility that such a cash grant system could help address changes in the structure of work, increase economic and racial equality, and compel corporations to share their wealth. Indeed basic income could function for lower-income people as wealth-generated income functions for the wealthy: a regular source of income not tied to work. However, as Brishen Rogers cautions, such outcomes are far from certain. Further, for black and Latino working-class communities, they may not be sufficient.

For a basic income to work for working-class communities and communities of color, which have long had disproportionately little power, it needs to redistribute wealth and power. It needs to exist next to investment in public sector jobs; be part of a robust safety net that can better address the structural racism that compounds disadvantage over time; include policy protections to ensure that the cash stays with the recipients and does not simply pass through to lenders and providers of key services and goods; and ensure that public investments that profit private enterprises generate returns for the public. Advocates must not only institute basic income, but also restructure power for working-class communities and communities of color.

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At its root, basic income aims to respond to the changing structure of the economy and labor market—the precarity of paid work, stagnant wages, uncertain hours, and the decline of workers’ formal and informal bargaining power—as corporate economic and political power has grown.

As Andy Stern and others argue, basic income could serve to increase workers’ bargaining power because the guaranteed cash would enable them to refuse unreasonable working conditions. However, as Rogers suggests, regulations protecting worker rights and standards would still be necessary to ensure that basic income does not function as a subsidy to employers, enabling them to reduce the employer-provided remuneration because everyone has a cushion.

Furthermore, basic income does not necessarily address some of the most tenacious and pernicious rules of our labor market. Algernon Austin has shown that, for more than a half-century, African American unemployment rates have been roughly twice as high as white unemployment rates. Structural racism—both within the labor market and in education, housing, and other related areas—largely accounts for this disparity. In addition many African Americans are trapped outside of the labor force altogether. (While many reasons for being outside the labor force are borne by different racial and ethnic groups equally, one—mass incarceration and discrimination against people with criminal records—disproportionately impacts African Americans.)

Indeed Rogers’s call for a “revamped public sector” is a vital corollary to basic income. As Steven Pitts has demonstrated, the public sector has been “the single most important source of employment for African Americans.” Public policy designed to overcome the history of structural racism and discrimination can be put into action through public sector employment practices. And, while some fret or fantasize about the “death of work,” much of the work required for the public good—building and repairing physical infrastructure (e.g., transit and transportation, energy, water), tending to the social infrastructure (e.g., caregiving, emergency response, educating) of communities—needs doing.

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Basic income also aims to change the bedrock rules of our economy; it divorces income from work and distributes resources to people because they are, rather than because they work.

Proposals vary. For instance, Peter Barnes proposes a small dividend (in the range of $5,000 annually) paid to everyone for the private use (by corporations especially) of our common resources (natural and “socially created”). Andy Stern proposes an income sufficient to subsist on. Some, including Rogers, see basic income as part of the existing social safety net, while others—such as Charles Murray and Matt Zwolinski—propose that a basic income could replace the existing safety net entirely. But this latter option would be especially disastrous for the most vulnerable among us. Rogers astutely warns that any basic income design premised on rolling back the social welfare apparatus or worker protections would lead to a dystopic future.

Basic income could be for lower-income people what wealth-generated income is for the wealthy: a source of income not tied to work.

The current social safety net targets disadvantaged recipient groups (primarily by income) in order to assure them access to necessary, quality goods and services (e.g., housing, education, health care, transportation). These existing programs put resources into the hands of individuals who need them and encourage the market to serve them, offering a modest reparation for policies and practices that have long disadvantaged people of color and with low incomes and wealth. While designs for basic income usually are structured to be progressive and benefit low-income and low-wealth people more, none ensures access to the goods and services people need.

In fact, without policy controls, basic income could exacerbate inequalities by driving inflation for necessities such as housing, childcare, and food as suppliers adapt to the baseline resources available to customers and clients. In such a scenario, the resources intended to liberate people at the lower end of the income and wealth spectrum would simply flow through to the already wealthy and powerful, disproportionately harming people of color and low-income people. Similarly, without a plan for programmatically addressing existing debt, basic income will have limited benefit for borrowers, who may end up simply signing over their basic income to their lenders.

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Finally, the most exciting basic income proposals aim to excavate the public contributions to private wealth generation and reap dividends for the public. “Auto manufacturers did not discover electricity,” Rogers says, “and Silicon Valley did not invent the Internet.” As a result this model might tax private corporations that use publicly funded research or resources and thus infuse the economy with a share of their gains. But even under this model, a basic income does not necessarily unwind corporate power.

President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans have made clear that they intend to restructure our social safety net and starve those programs; to undercut workers’ rights to safe workplaces, fair compensation, and free association in unions; to move public goods and services into private control; and to champion the interests of wealthy corporations and individuals. 

In the face of this effort to further concentrate wealth and power into the hands of a few, the question of the redistribution of power is vital. And it is the point at which the uneasy alliances among basic income advocates fracture. Basic income designed as a salve for masses of workers displaced by automation will only redistribute wealth but not power. Those who aim to create a more egalitarian society must envision a program that redistributes power as well.