Michael Hiltzik: COVID-19 may make universal basic income more palatable. That's a good thing

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

The idea of a universal basic income -- a regular stipend paid to every American adult to meet minimum life needs -- has been bubbling around the edges of American politics for decades.

With the coming of the coronavirus pandemic, UBI may finally move to center stage, and stay there.

"This is a moment when the UBI idea is possibly going to feel more appealing to a lot of people," observes Ioana Marinescu, a labor economist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied what she calls unconditional cash transfer programs.

UBI had gained currency during the early stages of the current election cycle thanks to the efforts of Andrew Yang, who made the idea the centerpiece of his run for the Democratic nomination for president until he suspended his campaign Feb. 11. Since then he has been promoting the idea via a nonprofit, Humanity Forward.

"Universal basic income is a lot more popular now than it was even several months ago, because of the clear need in our communities," Yang told me. The near-universal experience of receiving $1,200 checks as coronavirus rescue payments has strengthened the appeal of the idea, he says.

"They liked it," he says. "They didn't find that it transformed their work ethic or made them into lazy wastrels. So there's a lot of experience that puts to bed a lot of the resistance that people had."


The hope of many fans of UBI is that the coronavirus crisis, by exposing the gaping inequities in America's economic structure as the Great Depression did in the 1930s, will usher in a New Deal-like social revolution.

That would be beneficial to millions of Americans who have been marginalized by diminishing educational and employment opportunities. But it's wise to keep in mind that powerful entrenched political interests will strive to keep the present structure in place, despite the pandemic.

As I've mentioned in the past, the concept of universal basic income has long enthralled political and social thinkers across the ideological spectrum as diverse as Huey Long, Milton Friedman, Martin Luther King and Richard Nixon.

They're not all interested for the same reasons. Conservatives such as political scientist Charles Murray are intrigued by the possibility of replacing existing safety net programs wholesale, presumably at lower cost.


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