will a universal basic income be a long term solution?

Universal Basic Income seems like a compassionate, forward-looking idea. But in reality, it's little more than a band aid that needs a lot more thought.

sinking into poverty
Illustration by Christophe Huet

Ontario, Canada is going to try something new to help people get their lives back on track and become ground zero for a pilot program for a universal basic income. Though the province has not released any details, and the whole thing may still get scrapped, it shows that there’s some flirting with the concept from governments eager for a new way to tackle poverty. Essentially, a universal basic income is exactly what it sounds like. Everyone gets a certain sum of cash on a household basis simply for existing to address some basic needs. Anything above that is your choice and whatever other income you earn will be added to your UBI stipend, however you’re getting that money. Think of it as an efficient way to make sure your citizens don’t simply starve to death or are left homeless and destitute, or see crime as their only option for survival. But it’s not exactly a perfect system and considering the pretext for its advocacy in Europe, and now in the United States and Canada, it does seem to carry a certain sense of desperation, a positive spin on the admission that the officials implementing this ran out of ideas for job growth.

Now, I can just hear conservative pundits having conniptions on the subject. Money for nothing from the government? How would anyone be motivated to work, to study, or do something that isn’t watching TV and playing video games if all their basic needs are already met? And while it may be easy to dismiss these concerns by saying that no one should have to be forced to get a good education and a job at the gunpoint of starvation, it’s also impossible to deny that there’s going to be a group of people who use it as an excuse to do nothing whatsoever with their lives because they no longer have to in order to survive. On the other hand, considering that you will always have those only interested in putting in the absolute minimum effort required, going out of one’s way to base policies affecting everyone on the most efficient way to punish them is not just myopic, but harms those who genuinely need a hand up. There are numerous surveys and accounts which show that people who desperately want to escape poverty but can’t, are simply not planning for the future because they feel like they don’t have one, and every inconvenience can quickly turn into a budget-crippling disaster. UBI may be their ticket to the middle class.

Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is easier when you can afford them in the first place, and knowing that you will have some money for the basics and to cover emergencies will allow the beneficiaries in poverty to start saving, get a financial plan together, and have confidence that they’re not one bad day away from becoming homeless. When they can see a future, they can follow a plan to make it into something better. The way many nations provide assistance yanks the necessary safety nets the minute those receiving it start climbing out of poverty, rather than provide incentives to keep going and a safety net to prevent them from falling back in, giving no flexibility to decide how the assistance money is spent, even if the recipients can prove that the current package isn’t going to help them get ahead. Just giving them cash will allow them to do what they need to and allocate a token sum meant for food to fix a car so they can get to work, or get a laptop so they can attend online job training classes to earn more money. But again, it does seem like using it to combat slow job growth and stagnant wages is a treating a symptom rather than curing the disease, and while it will help the poor, the question is how much.

Sadly, outsourcing and automation have made a lot of people basically obsolete, and instead of helping them adapt to the new way of things, we’ve made learning the new skills they’ll need to compete prohibitively expensive. Now, instead of addressing what really seems to a problem in how we educate our workforce and how we plan for the future, UBI advocates are saying that a stipend should help because let’s face it, when half the world may be struggling to find a job by the year 2035, we might as well give in and accept that keeping people off the streets and from starvation is a necessary budgetary evil. But if we use UBI as a crutch, wouldn’t we then give a handy excuse to colleges who refuse to implement apprenticeship programs or participate in a job training program for snobbish, self-centered reasons, and companies who refuse to drop a four year degree as a requirement for even getting an interview despite not needing those who work for them to hold this degree 74% of the time? Go ahead, take whatever classes you want and pile on those student loans. It’s fine if we don’t train the next generation and outsource the jobs for which we don’t want to pay higher wages. It’s no biggie. They’ll just get a UBI check. To enable the acceptance of the status quo like that may end up doing a great deal of harm.

# politics // economics / future / jobs / universal basic income


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