On the Record: Bernie Sanders on Basic Income

There’s an increasing number of people asking Bernie Sanders if he supports the idea of universal basic income. You may be surprised to learn that he has in fact directly responded to these questions on multiple occasions, once even to a question posed to him myself.

This first exchange took place during his Reddit AMA on December 16, 2013:

Scott Santens: First of all, thank you for taking the time to do this IAMA, Senator Sanders.
Back in May of this year, you asked the question of us, “What Can We Learn From Denmark?”, and in that piece you mentioned their basic income guarantee. I’m sure you are also familiar, (though many reading this might not be), that we did actually pass a basic income guarantee of our own that passed the House but died in the Senate in 1970, back when we as a country thought poverty was systemic and not the fault of individuals.
Now in 2013, especially within the past few months since Switzerland made headlines with their gathering the necessary signatures required to vote on the implementation there of their own monthly income for all Swiss citizens regardless of employment, there have been a flurry of articles, from both the right and the left, discussing the implementation of a truly unconditional basic income (UBI) here in the U.S. as well.
With that said, this is my question for you:
Would you support a bill for the establishment of our own unconditional basic income, and if so, have you even already considered sponsoring such a bill?
It does seem to be one of those rare ideas drawing support from both conservatives and liberals alike, and being that we stand to lose half of our jobs to automation within 20 years, it seems like an inevitable choice between technological unemployment causing great suffering or great liberation.
Thank you for your time, and I would be happy to do whatever you recommend as a means of helping to accomplish such legislation.
For those interested, there’s an entire subreddit to discuss this idea in greater depth. /r/BasicIncome

His response:

Bernie Sanders: “There is no question that when we have today more people living in poverty than at any time in American history and when millions of families are struggling day by day just to keep their heads above water, we need to move aggressively to protect the dignity and well being of the least among us. Tragically, with cuts in food stamps, unemployment compensation and other important benefits, we are moving in exactly the wrong direction. There are a number of ways by which we can make sure that every man, woman and child in our country has at least a minimum standard of living and that is certainly something that must be explored.”

This next exchange took place during his next Reddit AMA on May 7, 2014, when Sanders was asked again about basic income, this time by /u/LoveAllHarmNone:

Q: What do you think of a Basic Income Guarantee if/when unemployment rises due to automation?
Bernie Sanders: I think that as a nation we should be deeply troubled by the fact that we have more people living in poverty today than ever before and that millions of seniors are finding it difficult to survive on about $1,200 a month from Social Security. I think we need to take a very hard look at why real income has gone down for millions of Americans despite a huge increase in productivity. In my view, every American is entitled to at least a minimum standard of living. There are different ways to get to that goal, but that’s the goal that we should strive to reach.

A year later, during another Reddit AMA on May 19, 2015, Sanders was once again asked about universal basic income, this time by /u/Stack0verf10w.

Q: Hello Senator Sanders, what is your stance on Universal Basic Income(UBI)? If in favor how do you see the United States progressing towards realizing UBI? If against, what alternatives come to your mind for combating rising inequality and poverty in the United States?
Bernie Sanders: So long as you have Republicans in control of the House and the Senate, and so long as you have a Congress dominated by big money, I can guarantee you that the discussion about universal basic income is going to go nowhere in a hurry. But, if we can develop a strong grassroots movement which says that every man, woman and child in this country is entitled to a minimum standard of living — is entitled to health care, is entitled to education, is entitled to housing — then we can succeed. We are living in the richest country in the history of the world, yet we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country and millions of people are struggling to put food on the table. It is my absolute conviction that everyone in this country deserves a minimum standard of living and we’ve got to go forward in the fight to make that happen.

In perhaps the most visible of all occurrences, Ezra Klein during his Vox Conversation with Bernie Sanders, chose to ask the basic income question as his final question.

Ezra Klein: Let me end on a question about a policy that is getting, seems to be, some momentum but it’s not often talked about in Washington, which is a universal basic income. You’ve begun to have people go back to both Milton Friedman and Martin Luther King Jr., saying we should really have a fundamentally guaranteed standard of living in this country.
Bernie Sanders: I am absolutely sympathetic to that approach. That’s why I’m fighting for a $15 minimum wage, why I’m fighting to make sure that everybody in this country gets the nutrition they need, why I’m fighting to expand Social Security benefits and not cut them, making sure that every kid in this country regardless of income can go to college. That’s what a civilized nation does.
Here’s the point. This is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, but nobody in America knows it because their standard of living is going down and almost all of the new wealth is going to the top 1 percent. That is an issue that we have to deal with.
In the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, the top one-tenth of 1 percent should not own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Everybody in this country should in fact have at least a minimum and dignified standard of living. All right?

Sanders’ interview with Vox is also not the only time he has been asked the BIG question on video. On October 10, 2014, this occurrence was recorded at the University of New Hampshire:

Q: Do you support a Universal Basic Income for all US residents and why?
Bernie Sanders: I think the goal to deal with this, as I’ve been saying tonight, is to make sure that we eliminate poverty in America. If we have wages for people — living wages that sustain a family, there are various ways to do it. So I mean — different ways to reach that goal. But if the goal is that in America everybody should have at least a modest standard of living — with healthcare, with educational opportunity, the answer is absolutely yes.

The above responses by Bernie Sanders to being asked about the idea of universal basic income are all those of which I know, though undoubtedly there are more. If you know of one you’d like to see added here, please let me know so I can add it.

Also, I think it would be a good strategy to continue asking Bernie Sanders about basic income as frequently as possible. The more he is asked, the more support for the idea he will see, and undoubtedly the more credence he will lend to the idea having more political potential than he may currently think.

If we can reach the tipping point where Bernie Sanders perceives enough support to begin at least mentioning basic income without even being asked, the result will be millions more people immediately hearing about the idea for the first time. And that will be a huge, if not even the most important step towards basic income. For to demand basic income, we must first all know the idea exists.

With that said, aside from asking Bernie Sanders yourself in Q & As, debates, town halls, phone calls, emails, snail mails, and via social media, there is this petition you can sign to send him and all other presidential candidates as well, urging them all to support the idea of basic income.


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Scott Santens writes about basic income on his blog. You can also follow him here on Medium, on Twitter, on Facebook, or on Reddit where he is a moderator for the /r/BasicIncome community of over 30,000 subscribers.

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