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Editor’s 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!
Brishen Rogers is right that a basic income will not solve all of the problems created by the political economy of American capitalism. It will not magically solve the collective action problem among workers and the powerless vis-à-vis corporate power.
But most proponents do not see it as a magic bullet. Many of us see it as one of several elements in a reimagined twenty-first-century social contract that provides economic security for all. And we get there via different political and strategic routes. Futurists and technologists come to the basic income idea via technology and automation. Libertarians come to basic income from arguments around efficiency and reducing the size of the state. Progressives come to basic income from a concern around non-domination, freedom, and redistributive justice.
Universal PLUS Basic Income would function as reparations in a grand bargain with white America.
I come to basic income from a very different political tradition: black politics with a focus on race and political economy. It is this tradition that led both Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Panther Party to argue for full employment and a “guaranteed income” fifty years ago. Though they wanted these specifically for African Americans, they hoped they would be made available to all Americans. Five decades later it is about time the rest of us caught up to their vision.
Black workers today face the exact same dual crisis of high unemployment and low-wage work that they did fifty years ago. The black unemployment rate is twice that of white workers at nearly every level of education. Thus one need not be only concerned with future trends to speculate that a basic income would help black Americans today, especially those who continue to be locked out of access to labor markets.
Rogers is spot on to warn us that basic income could be “designed to serve white nationalist ends.” We know this from our own historical experience. Seemingly “universal” social policies, from the New Deal to the Great Society, have had intended and unintended consequences of maintaining or exacerbating existing racial and gender inequalities. Many supposedly “universal” policies ultimately were not.
But Rogers’s rightful skepticism and warning about a white nationalist basic income comes down to a question of political power. President Franklin D. Roosevelt compromised on his New Deal programs because southern Democrats insisted on it. The race-based occupational exclusions of agricultural and domestic workers were ultimately included in Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act to appease political elites protecting the southern Jim Crow racial and economic regime over the protests of racial justice organizations. Black workers were excluded as a result of this previous iteration of white nationalism and populism. But advocates for a truly universal social policy did not give up, eventually winning racial inclusion in Social Security but not the other two major New Deal policies.
Similarly we should not limit our political imaginations about the promise of a basic income because of the very perilous questions around race, immigration, and exclusion. Quite the opposite. We should imagine a robust basic income that advances racial and gender justice while simultaneously addressing the ills of twenty-first-century capitalism.
I have argued that a basic income in all but a few forms—those that exclude the incarcerated or result in a net decrease in benefits—would benefit African American communities for the following reasons.
First, it would provide an individual-sustaining basic floor for returning citizens caught up in the criminal justice system.
Second, even an equal income could disproportionately benefit black Americans. White Americans earn more overall, so a greater percentage of their basic income would be taxed back. More importantly today’s wealthiest Americans benefit either directly from African Americans’ disadvantaged position in our political economy, or indirectly as a result of the cumulative benefits to our nation from centuries of exploiting black bodies. Black Americans either helped build the co-owned wealth of our nation (our infrastructure and banking, legal, and patent systems) or were denied access to our share of it (land, sky, and other natural resources). Even if African Americans receive an income equal to whites, tapping wealth hoarded by racist means and distributing it universally effectively amounts to targeted redistribution.
Third, a basic income would be an improvement on portions of today’s current safety net. Some benefits, such as food stamps, are replete with paternalistic restrictions that rest on racist tropes about recipients and their consumption habits. Others, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), are significantly tied to work, which is problematic when structural racism continues to create so many barriers to black employment. A basic income lacks these flaws.
A campaign around U+BI could create political will within black communities and across racial and ethnic divides in America.
The underlying assumption around welfare and entitlement reform has been that racial minorities do not want to work and that existing social policies provide “disincentives” to work. Basic income fundamentally decouples work from the economic right to basic needs and arguably bolsters individual-level bargaining power in the labor market. It also, by virtue of its universality, is less likely to be viewed as a program solely to benefit one racial or ethnic group. For sure, racialized attacks on cash grants will continue, but progressives are in a stronger position arguing for a universal program, knowing that it will in fact benefit African Americans greatly.
There is, in fact, a model of basic income which is not only acceptable but preferable to common proposals: the Universal PLUS Basic Income. It is identical to most basic income proposals but includes a pro-rated additional amount for black Americans over a specified period of time. The Universal PLUS Basic Income draws on the concept of “targeted universalism” in designing social policies. Such a proposal would take into account the historical and cumulative disadvantages of income, wealth, and inheritance afflicting black communities, and it would recognize that potential changes in the nature of work will disproportionately hurt black Americans. It would effectively function as reparations in a grand bargain with white America: all would benefit, but those who suffered through slavery and continuing racism in the economy would benefit slightly more.
Most importantly a campaign around a racially inclusive basic income is a potential opportunity for creating the political will within black communities and across racial and ethnic divides in American politics. Rogers, after all, suffers from the same limited theory of change with which he charges libertarian basic income supporters. How and under what conditions will the political will for his broad public sector program to advance economic security and human flourishing be created? Yes, there have been incredible victories by fast food, retail, and farm workers over the past decade to advance worker power, and these efforts are necessary but not yet sufficient to win national labor law reform.
But public opinion around economic redistribution has always been higher among black Americans relative to the rest of the population, and initial polling and focus groups around support for a basic income in the United States suggests this pattern still holds. Thus a U+BI proposal could become a bridge to the increasingly salient demand for reparations and reinvestment emerging from the Movement for Black Lives. And, if nothing else, it serves as a stronger starting progressive bargaining position in political fights over basic income. We are not yet at a moment to argue beyond basic income. We have to build the campaign to win it first.
Each week, another magazine, book, or think tank sketches a dystopian near-future in which automation renders workers unnecessary. Is a basic income the solution?
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