Why a universal basic income is a band-aid but not a solution.
As the pandemic continues, and most places still have stay-at-home orders in place, many people have been calling for a Universal Basic Income. Presidential candidates, party leaders, activists and liberals have all demanded a universal basic income for the people. Some have touted it as the logical solution to make things equal and accessible and many love the idea of being able to count on basic necessities being taken care of and some even go as far as to suggest that a universal basic income will solve hunger and homelessness. Most of the aid programs that have been announced in response to the financial hardships the pandemic has caused have been very clearly geared toward workers who lost income due to the pandemic as well as businesses. Apparently the poor, the disabled and the elderly can't be trusted with cash and must go begging at food banks and other NGOs. In light of this, I can understand why people would think that giving everyone the same amount of money is a just and therefore desirable outcome. And in the short term, it's a great band-aid and it would help to eliminate the discrimination that is reinforced by the stratification of government aid.
In Quebec, where I live, people on welfare, disability and government pensions are expected to survive on one third to one half of what laid-off workers are getting. Even in times of global crisis, the message is clear: "you are only worthy of sufficient help if you were generating money when the pandemic hit and you need to have your life subsidised so banks don't fail".And even then, it doesn't cover all workers. In the case of workers who are deemed "essential" and are, therefore, "allowed" to keep working, some aren't even getting hazard pay and even the top-up some governments are giving them still doesn't match what people who are laid off are getting. Huge shout out to these people who cannot even quit because quitting would make them ineligible for aid and so have to power through and put their lives at risk for less than the people who can stay home.
It would definitely be one less thing to worry about when the choice is often "risk your life and the lives of others by going out and ignoring public health orders" or "go hungry or get in a lot of trouble with your unflexible landlord". And many don't even have the option of working!
As much as you can solve some very short-term issues by offering the same amount of aid to everyone this is NOT a long-term solution. Yes, it would undo some of the discrimination directed at people who don't get paid (or get paid peanuts) for their contributions to society or have already paid a lifetime of taxes but it can also lead to much more discrimination, poverty shaming, the widening of the wealth gap and the limiting of social mobility amng other things. Let's look at those more in-depth.
- UBI does not unlock doors sealed shut by systemic oppression. Just because you have money doesn't mean you have access. For example. many will not be allowed to rent whatever apartment they want wherever you want even if it fits their budget. Why? Because landlords will still project all sorts of things onto marginalised communities which will justify a refusal. So, if you're racialised, look or act "weird", are unable to mask your neurodivergence or your gender identity or are on the wrong end of any of the made-up privilege-oppression axes (aka demographics and citizenship status), UBI doesn't fix the problem of access for you.
- UBI will make it more difficult for people to get the help they need. With UBI comes the idea that people will have enough to survive. That means that if UBI does not take down barriers to access people believe it will, it will be the fault of the person whose needs are not being met. And that's assuming that funding UBI doesn't result in the dismantling of the existing safety nets and the defunding of charities filling in the gaps in the government safety net.
- UBI will lead to poverty shaming. In the same vein, people whose needs exceed the UBI amount or who run out of money due to unforeseen circumstances will be shamed for being bad at managing their money. There is already so much "wisdom" being passed around about people living "within their means" but if UBI isn't enough for basic needs (which I consider to include leisure activities), it will once again be their fault. The assumption we are making here is that UBI will remain indexed to the cost of living which I find highly unlikely because….
- UBI will be dependent on the willingness of corporations to pay tax. Once automation wipes out most jobs, the only source of taxation will be from corporations who, despite their much lower overheads, will still be profit-driven and will still seek to maximise their profits in any way possible. That means continuing to avoid and evade taxes as they do now. The same goes for their shareholders and executives. So there is no guarantee that they will be willing to fund a just UBI program. And why would they if they can squeeze as much money out of UBI recipients as they can whilst still shaming them for not making ends meet. As with all government programs, the beneficiaries are corporations and, by association, their shareholders and executives.
- UBI leaves out people who have the "wrong" passport or visa. As we have seen with this pandemic, viruses don't discriminate. They don't care if you're a billionaire or famous or if you have the right papers. Leaving migrants and undocumented workers out of UBI programs and other social programs will only put us all at risk of communicable diseases and serve to further marginalise people who tend to do a lot of the work most people born in the Global North have been taught to look down on.
- UBI will widen the wealth gap and limit social mobility. As mentioned earlier, corporations are moving closer and closer to eliminating all jobs with AI and other forms of automation. Those with bigger budgets to do so will do so faster and, in accordance with the trend that already exists, will push very hard to eliminate smaller competitors from the free market they love to evangelise for. When jobs disappear and the ability to generate extra money dries up, the only way people will be able to survive will be within the limits of UBI whilst corporations will see their profit margins explode. This will make the gap between rich and poor that much wider and make it nearly impossible to move up in the world. You could say UBI is the perfect way to get people to buy into neutralising the threat they present to the billionaire class.
- Poverty is not the absence of money. It is the absence of access. Common sense dictates that if people have money, they can access whatever they need because money buys you freedom. But this is a totally flawed idea. Money only fixes the problem money creates. It does not fix the problems prejudice and discrimination create.
- UBI just doubles down on capitalism and doesn't actually fix anything All in all, what UBI does, in the long run, is to continue to chain people to the number in their bank account and does nothing to address the larger problems that exist within our society. By reducing our needs to a dollar amount and making ourselves dependent on people who care more about their profit margins than the environment or the health and well-being of the people who make their lifestyle possible, we have just made the problems capitalism creates and depends upon further entrenched in our society. There is no good way to implement UBI because it will always place money at the centre of our interactions thereby making it a barrier to access.
In the end, money isn't a panacea and it won't even guarantee that people have their most basic needs met. It's lazy to hold up UBI as a solution to all our problems or as some great equaliser. In some ways, it's not enough and in other ways it's just too much. So, yeah, for the short-term it can help people by giving them some room to breathe but thinking of UBI as a long-term solution is like thinking you can treat a gunshot wound with a band-aid. It might stop the bleeding and keep some of the bacteria out but it's no substitute for stitches or surgery. What we need to do is to stop creating barriers to access, meet people's needs and help them discover and hone their best selves.