Photo via Magali Girardin / AP

Could universal basic income start with local and state legislation?

In early 2016, a group of concerned citizens working in progressive nonprofit, political, and technology organizations — many of whom are now signatories to the Economic Security Project’s Statement of Belief — came together to explore a crazy idea: what if we could get the San Francisco city government to endorse a universal basic income (UBI)?

UBI has provoked interest from many corners, generating widespread media coverage in publications like The Economist, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In Canada, Britain, and throughout Europe, major political parties are floating the idea as an elegant, modern solution to a broad swath of problems. Around the world, including here in the Bay Area, several studies are now underway to pilot variations on a basic income.

Despite the early momentum, there are still many unknowns. How much do people know about UBI? What do they think of it? Has all the media coverage translated into awareness or support?

We looked around for examples of other now-popular policy ideas that started small. Today, a majority of voters support ideas like marriage equality, minimum wage increases, or decriminalizing cannabis. In many such cases, political support and early policy trials began at the state and local level, so we asked whether this local-first approach might also make sense for UBI.

To answer our questions we commissioned a poll, led by political consultants 50+1 Strategies and David Binder Research. To our knowledge, this is the most significant piece of political research on UBI in the United States.

We share key takeaways below in hopes of advancing the conversation around this potentially important piece of policy. None of the arguments against, nor the overall numbers, come as much of a surprise for a bold idea still in its political infancy. The key lessons are the urgent necessity to raise awareness and promote the potential benefits of a universal basic income.


People Like The Idea Of A Base Income

Finding

A plurality of voters supported the core idea of providing every resident of the United States with a base income. Younger people, people of color, and less affluent people supported this more. Support was also highest among people who know the most about UBI.

Of note: these results are much more supportive than initial poll results in California on marriage equality and cannabis legalization; 46% support for UBI vs. 28% in 1977 for marriage equality (then polled as “gay marriage”) or 12% in 1969 for legalizing pot.

Implication

The general concept of a floor on income is generally acceptable to and popular with voters. This is a solid first step.


UBI is Still Relatively Unknown

Finding

73% of respondents described themselves as knowing “nothing” or “just a little” about UBI, and only 12% described themselves as knowing “quite a bit.” Younger people were more likely to have heard about it.

Implication

Despite the popularity of UBI in certain circles, the public at large has not been discussing the concept. It is necessary to raise awareness among the general public for UBI to be politically viable in the coming decades. It is also a tremendous opportunity to frame the debate.


The Devil is in the Details

Finding

Here are the policy details that were shared:

  • The check is not tied to work or having a job
  • The amount of the monthly check would be between $500 and $2000
  • The monthly income could be used for anything
  • The cost of the monthly income would be paid for by tax revenues
  • Every adult resident would receive a monthly check, similar to a Social Security check

Around 50 percent of respondents oppose these policy specifics, a trend that holds across all demographic groups.

Unsurprisingly, given the lack of active examples of UBI, digging into the details led to concerns and eroded the policy support.

Implication

The concept of unconditionality appears off-putting. Voters surveyed did not like the idea that income is not tied to work. UBI might only make sense in a future that also reimagines the social contract, employment, and economic growth.

The idea that the income could be used for anything — and that it would be paid by taxes — also seems to unnerve voters, speaking to the need for effective test cases.


Effectiveness and Taxing the Rich are Most Persuasive Pro-UBI Messages

Finding

The most persuasive argument in favor of UBI is that basic income is an effective way to spend government funds (based on the example of the Alaskan Permanent Fund). Also appealing were the message of increasing consumer spending and that corporations and the wealthy should be paying more taxes. Statements about the impact of automation were less convincing.

Implication

How the Universal Basic Income is paid for matters — and has an impact on support. There are several suggestions for how it could be paid for: expanding the Alaska model nationwide, making corporations and the wealthy pay more, revisiting current spending priorities, and a number of outside-the-box ideas. We hope to see many more policy proposals for how a 21st century Universal Basic Income could be created in the coming years.

It’s interesting to the Silicon Valley contingent of our group that the automation argument was the least convincing. Our daily news feeds are overrun by stories about the coming automation wave, but apparently, like UBI, this concept has not yet gone mainstream.


Laziness and Affordability are Most Persuasive Anti-UBI Messages

Finding

The most persuasive arguments against UBI were that it would make people lazy and that it was unaffordable. Voters were less persuaded that this idea was counter to the foundations of the US economy.

Implication

The laziness argument is one that has hamstrung welfare and safety net efforts for decades. Research from basic income pilots may help address the issue of incentives to work.


Name Matters

Finding

What you call universal basic income matters a great deal. In fact, we should probably stop calling it a universal basic income.

Implication

Framing of policy initiatives are important. When activists centered the marriage equality debate on the idea that “love is love,” the movement gained momentum.

Anchoring around words with positive associations may also work for UBI proponents. In the polling, respondents viewed “Social Security for all” much more favorably than “universal basic income.” Word choice and framing will matter if UBI is to gain broad acceptance.


Conclusion

We believe that the local-first strategy could be a promising way to build support for UBI, but there is a big difference between building support locally and rushing straight into the contested and highly polarized electoral political environment. While we ultimately decided not to proceed with a ballot initiative in San Francisco this fall, we now know where to focus our work: on researching the effects of UBI and better communicating the potential benefits — and drawbacks — to the public at large.


Call to action: We’ve recently launched the Economic Security Project to support efforts to better understand UBI. If you’re interested and think you can help, become a signatory or reach out — this could take a decade or more, and people from all walks of life. The group that funded this study included Jim Pugh, co-founder of Universal Income Project; Peter Barnes, author; Mark Gomez, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society; Natalie Foster, Institute for the Future; Misha Chellam & Russ Klusas, Founders, Tradecraft; Roy Bahat, Bloomberg Beta; and Chris Hughes, entrepreneur and philanthropist. We are building a community, and we welcome you.

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