The time has come to design, develop, and organize for a Basic Income

Our country is more divided than at any time since the Civil War. Whether in victory or defeat, most Americans are feeling a deep distrust and resentment of one another. Our faith in the good nature of our fellow citizens has never felt more brittle, and many people on the left and the right are thinking about how to create a more inclusive, empathetic America.

This collective anxiety has many sources, but one of the most important is a diminishing faith in the American ideal of equal opportunity for all. Median household incomes in the US haven’t budged in decades even though the price of healthcare, education, and housing have skyrocketed. The old idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead has disappeared. As a handful of people at the top have thrived, the rest of America — urban and rural, white people and people of color, old and young — has nearly uniformly been left behind.

In response to this pivotal moment, over 100 leaders from a broad range of professional and personal backgrounds have come together to call for economic security through cash. This group is new, growing, and ideologically diverse. What unites us is a commitment to explore how we can provide financial security for all Americans using cash as key tool.

To be clear about the problem: the economy that worked generally well for every generation since World War II no longer exists. And, truth be told, it never worked for far too many black and brown Americans who still struggle to close growing racial wealth and income gaps. Americans of nearly all backgrounds now believe their kids are likely to fare worse than they have. Major forces like automation and globalization have changed the nature of jobs, making nearly half of them piecemeal, part-time, and contingent — Uber drivers, part-time workers, TaskRabbit workers abound.

“Grocery Shopping” by Charlotte Tai, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

But we must not resign ourselves to an America of enduring poverty and middle-class stagnation. It is time to think creatively about how to restore balance to our economy and provide the opportunity to succeed to all.

The traditional tools to expand economic opportunity are important to invest in and protect, particularly at such an important time in our country as this one. We have to preserve our existing safety net and ensure every person has access to a quality education, from pre-K through college. These investments are necessary, but the past several decades have shown they are far from sufficient.

We know from research in the US and internationally that recurring, unconditional cash stipends are a shockingly effective way to encourage work, improve health and education outcomes, and create a ladder of economic opportunity. Cash benefits do away with unnecessary restrictions and empower people to use the funds for what they most urgently need — gas money, food for children, or to pay a phone bill. (Across studies and cultures, less than 1% of funds go to alcohol or drugs.) More often than not, people are savvy about how to invest in themselves and their families to foster better economic outcomes in the long run.

At a modest level, cash stipends are not a replacement for work, and most studies show recipients continue to work the same amount or even more. A recurring, basic income would enable every person to reach the first rung of the economic ladder to pull themselves up. We don’t need to wait for the onslaught of artificial intelligence or further globalization to agree that everyone should have the freedom to live and work in the modern economy.

The mission of the Economic Security Project is to explore the variety of ways that we might provide financial security to all through cash benefits. There are many ways to design cash programs: an expanded negative income tax, dividends from a fee on carbon, government savings accounts for our children, or Social Security for all. We want to embrace the diversity of viewpoints in our community and are not looking to advocate for any one particular policy. We aim to convene as broad and robust a conversation about these ideas as possible and to financially support people and organizations thinking through how a basic income might work, how we might pay for it, how to most effectively talk about it, and what a political roadmap might be to put it in place.

Through this work, we hope a robust and diverse community will emerge behind the idea of using cash to provide financial security to all — and with more developed plans on how to do so.

Anyone who agrees should sign on to our founding Statement of Belief. We have a broad coalition of leaders from a range of disciplines, ideologies, and backgrounds, many of whom are contributing to the conversation through our Medium page. Please consider commenting below or writing your own post to share your perspective, as Scott Scantens, Connie Raza, and Peter Barnes already have. Also check out John Battelle’s post on NewCo Shift and Roy Bahat’s post at the Shift Commission.

Finally, this journey is expensive: we need to support a range of people working to experiment, research, and organize on behalf of the idea, and we are actively looking for people who want to do more than lend their name. Please consider supporting this important and critical work with a financial donation.