America is failing at providing economic dignity, and universal basic income is perhaps one policy that can change that


Pedestrians cast shadows on a pavement as they walk in front of a shopping mall in Seoul on August 30, 2013. South Korea's current account surplus fell for the second straight month in July, but exports increased and the central bank forecast a record surplus by the end of the year. The current account surplus, the broadest measure of South Korea's trade with the rest of the world, stood at $6.77 billion last month, the Bank of Korea said, down from $7.24 billion in June and a record USD 8.64 billion in May. AFP PHOTO / TRUTH LEEM (Photo credit should read Truth LEEM/AFP/Getty Images)

For years, the government of Bhutan has enshrined gross national happiness as its guiding light. Though national leaders had long eschewed traditional economic metrics like gross domestic product in favor of a more subjective understanding of development, in 2008, the country’s constitution formally established that ensuring “a good quality of life for the people of Bhutan” would be its primary aim. GNH would be the measure of the country’s progress, quantified by a complicated index based on “areas of psychological well being, cultural diversity and resilience, education, health, time use, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience and economic living standards”—an array of factors that might all together quantify well-being and happiness.

The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in 2011 that praised Bhutan’s efforts. It also recognized that “the gross domestic product indicator by nature was not designed to and does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people in a country” and that “a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and well-being of all peoples” was needed.

Gene Sperling, who served as an economic adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and frequently contributes to The Atlantic, has come to the same conclusion. “As someone who has had a box seat in the national economic dialogue for the last 25, 30 years, there was just increasingly something that bothered me,” he said last Saturday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “I noticed that there was a tendency, as time went on, to take your eye off the ball. You’re there to help people’s lives. You’re there to increase the happiness and fulfillment of real people.”

But, he said, economists and policy makers too often set their sights on certain goals—high GDP and low unemployment—that can disregard how Americans actually feel. To re-center economics in people’s lived experiences, Sperling proposed the adoption of a different goal: dignity.

Dignity should not be framed as a new metric to fulfill by checking off items on a list or to quantify with percentages and dollar signs, he said. Instead, it should be treated as a protective sphere akin to the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment in the criminal-justice system: an assured base-level quality of life.

Economic dignity would mean being able “to care for your family and enjoy the most meaningful moments of family life, without economic deprivation taking away those most meaningful moments,” Sperling said. It would mean being able “to pursue your potential and your purpose.” And finally, it would mean being able “to participate in the economy without domination and humiliation.”

By Sperling’s criteria, he said, America is failing on all three fronts. Even as the unemployment rate in the United States is hovering near a 50-year low, the country has no universal paid-family-leave requirement to ensure that new parents have time to spend with their infant children or to heal after birth. No law grants employees bereavement leave with which to mourn loved ones and begin to piece their lives back together in their absence. The federal minimum wage falls beneath the poverty line for families of two or more. Officially, about 13 million Americans—and likely more unofficially—have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. The U.S. also fails to provide adequate support for people who have lost their jobs, Sperling said, and adequate resources with which to find new ones. Students are taking on crippling debt to go to college. In 2017, 12.3 percent of Americans were living in poverty.

Together, Sperling observed, that adds up to millions of Americans living without what he defines as economic dignity: unable to provide a basic quality of life for themselves and the people they love, enduring unfulfilling or downright exploitative work conditions out of a desperate need for money. And with the nation’s economic mobility in sharp decline over the past few decades, many workers and their families could remain mired in that state for generations.

But Americans can fight for greater economic dignity, Sperling said, arguing that many already are: By unionizing; pushing for a higher minimum wage; lobbying for better leave, child-care, and health-care policies; and demanding action against workplace sexual misconduct, they’re working to claim more of what he put forward as the base necessities for all working people. Sperling argued that the government should be doing much more. “Government is responsible for making sure you have a degree of economic dignity,” he said, though he noted that policy makers shouldn’t start out “with a bias for exactly how it has to get done.” Policies to promote dignity could take a number of different forms, he said. The 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are debating a number of universal health-care plans. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit could help achieve what he feels is an essential “economic dignity wage,” he noted. So could a federal living wage, or, perhaps, a universal basic income. Child-care allowances, substantial periods of guaranteed family and bereavement leave, and barriers to harassment could be achieved in many different ways, he said.

“But that’s the right way to look at it,” Sperling said: as an array of options. “Don’t make the means the end,” he emphasized. “Happiness is the end goal. So try asking why people are unhappy”—and work from there.

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