Basic income and politics: a tangible conversation

A conversation about the political feasibility of a basic income can sometimes fall along the same lines as a conversation about, say, free college. “Sure, it sounds good on paper,” they’ll say. “But how do you pay for it?”

Often times this conversation falls into two different categories: long term utopias and short term economic policy. At the Economic Security Project’s CASH Conference “Politics And A Path Forward” panel, Chris Lee (D, State Rep., Hawaii), Bill Wielechowski (D, State Sen., Alaska) and Joe Sanberg (founder of the non-profit CalEITC4ME) spent their panel tackling the real-world implications of a basic income.

Each of their approaches to economic security varied in application and scope, but the three agreed on one central point: it won’t be long before basic income enters the national political conversation.

Wielechowski spoke about Alaska’s unique dividend program. The Permanent Fund, established in the late 1970s, emerged when Alaska suddenly came into hundreds of millions of dollars in oil revenue following the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. The legislature, flush with money, amended the state Constitution to create the Permanent Fund, which would invest the oil profits and then distribute a certain portion equally to every resident of Alaska. The exact amount fluctuates year-to-year — in 2015, it eclipsed $2,000. That means a family of four would have received an $8,000 check, to spend as they see fit.

Key to the Permanent Fund dividend’s success, Wielechowski thinks, is that the program doesn’t feel like a “basic income” to Alaskans — a group of people, he says, who carry a fierce sense of independence. Rather, the Dividend feels like an Alaskan resident’s share of the oil wealth — something deserved, in other words, rather than perceived as simply given in return for nothing.

Despite the prodigious size of the Permanent Fund — as of the most recent estimates, the total size is around $55 billion — Alaska is coping with its own budgetary crises. Residents pay no sales or income tax, and the last few years have brought a decline in the production of oil. As the state faces the bizarre situation of navigating this budget shortfall while keeping a fortune in the bank, the future of this proto-basic income structure is in question.

Hawaii, on the other hand, finds itself on the other end of the spectrum. Chris Lee, elected to the state’s House of Representatives, convened a task force in 2016 to discuss the possibility of a statewide basic income.

For Lee, the interest in a basic is borne out of a larger moral conviction. He believes in an economically secure existence for any working Hawaiian, a vision that is disappointingly distant from the inhabited reality. Toward that end, he and his fellow legislators grew the state earned-income tax credit, expanded the definition of “work,” and convened a task force to look at models for basic income. It’s not the mechanism itself, he says, worth focusing on — his guiding principle is ameliorating poverty, and basic income, he thinks, could be a part of that larger project.

Like Lee, Joe Sanberg views poverty as an existential concern for his home state of California. Sanberg, who runs the CalEITC4Me non-profit, rattled off a list of disconcerting figures that captured the extent of the state’s poverty crisis.

1 in 5 Californians, he said, are in poverty. 1 in 5 are near poverty. 3 of 4 Californians couldn’t weather an emergency $700 expense.

This is a systematic issue, Sanberg argued. He sees California as a state with decades of progressive-oriented social policy but corporate-friendly economic policy.

“The present isn’t an accident,” he said. “We have a present where most people who aren’t working can’t afford basic needs because of bad policy decisions.”

Is basic income a panacea? None of the panelists went as far to suggest as much, but all agreed the conversation surrounding the potential policy could swell in volume. When asked when these ideas might become prominent on the national stage, all agreed: by the 2020 presidential election.