Imagine, for a moment, that the robots have won.
The year is 2049—the same year researchers once pegged as the one in which A.I. would become smart enough to pen a bestselling book more adeptly than a human author could. Technological advancements have upended the transportation, manufacturing and retail sectors, rendering nearly half of the U.S. jobs that existed in the year 2020 obsolete.
You’ve just had a surgery—a relatively minor, outpatient procedure performed by a surgical robot—and now you’re on your way to the pharmacy to fill a prescription for the pain. The car that transports you there is driverless, as are all the other vehicles on the road. At the drugstore, a mechanical arm sifts through rows of pharmaceuticals before meting out and packing up the correct dosage of pills for you. After a few minutes spent scanning the magazine rack in the pharmacy’s automated checkout line, you settle at the last minute on a trashy tabloid; some of the articles inside of it are the handiwork of particularly sophisticated A.I.
In this automated world, there are fewer jobs available. To be clear, experts aren’t totally convinced that the coming robot revolution will render all jobs outmoded at any point in the future, near or far. But imagining a post-work society is a useful gateway into thinking about how to preserve dignity and stay afloat in the capitalist soup that unfettered neoliberalism has made in the 21st century, and how to address yawning inequality and wage stagnation as an increasingly automated future takes root.
One hypothetical solution to both problems is universal basic income, or UBI. At its most essential, a UBI is a guaranteed cash transfer that a government disseminates directly to people, regardless of how much or how little money they make. Its proponents argue that its dual gifts are dignity and security: By having the cash in-hand without the paternalistic meddling of the welfare state, UBI recipients have the freedom to choose how to invest in their own futures. And by establishing a nationwide income floor, a UBI could simultaneously help to ensure that workers are at least somewhat protected from the privatization and technological obsolescence that threaten to destabilize entire industries.
Although former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang helped push the program into the mainstream by championing the idea of a $1,000 monthly “Freedom Dividend” as a central plank in his 2020 campaign, the concept of UBI has existed for centuries, stretching as far back as the 16th century, when English philosopher Thomas More slipped a casual reference to a guaranteed minimum income into his socio-political satire Utopia. Various iterations of the concept have been tested all around the world, from Kenya to India to the Netherlands to Alaska, and it is currently the subject of a pilot program in Stockton, California.
Natalie Foster, a co-chair and co-founder of the Economic Security Project—“a network that supports the exploration and experimentation of a guaranteed income”—says that capitalism’s single-minded emphasis on profit and profitability has so warped our ideas about purpose and usefulness in work, that some of the most valuable roles in our social contract sometimes go unpaid and undervalued.
Capitalism’s single-minded emphasis on profit has so warped our ideas about purpose and usefulness in work, that some of the most valuable roles in our social contract sometimes go unpaid and undervalued.
“We [as a country] say if you’re taking care of a family member who is disabled and you stay at home with them, that’s not work. And that makes no sense,” Foster said. “We need to broaden our understanding of work, and I think a guaranteed income gets us closer to that.”
But debates about what constitutes work aren’t purely semantic. The gulf between America’s richest and poorest citizens is currently the widest it’s been since the Census Bureau first began recording wealth data more than 50 years ago, and as many as 40 percent of Americans say they would be unable to cover an emergency $400 medical expense, should the situation arise. A UBI, Foster said, is “one of the ways you can start to rebalance the economy by putting money back in people’s pockets”—and a way to infuse a sense of pride back into an American workforce that has been stripped stripped of its dignity over the years.
“That’s the power of a guaranteed income: saying that no matter who you are and what you do, every month, you know you have income that can help you pay the rent, pay bills, take care of childcare, deal with a vehicle expense, and allow you to take more risks with work or to leave a job you don’t love, or more importantly to stop the second or third job that you have to do in order to put food on the table,” Foster said.
A UBI, it’s worth noting, wouldn’t eliminate the need for work entirely; after all, $1,000 a month, as some have proposed—already considered in some quarters to be a nearly cost-prohibitive price tag for a universally applied program—is hardly enough money to get by in most American cities. But the program would necessitate a radical philosophical shift in the ways that we think about work, and the role that self-esteem plays in our labor.
With guaranteed income, workers could turn down a job that they didn’t want to do, or to forgo a second or third job in favor of spending more time with family.
It would, for example, imbue workers with enough economic security to turn down a job that they didn’t want to do, or to forgo a second or third job in favor of spending more time with family and loved ones. Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has in the past referred to UBI as a national strike fund—one that effectively creates bargaining power for striking workers by ensuring that they wouldn’t have to cross a picket line in order to be able to afford their cost of living.
But while a UBI wouldn’t do away with the need for work entirely, experts say that’s not much of an issue to begin with: People want to work, in part because they derive so much of their social value from it.
Ioana Marinescu, an assistant professor of labor market economics at the University of Pennsylvania, says research shows that there is little to no effect of a UBI on people’s propensity to work. As an example, she points to lottery winners, who oftentimes receive their winnings in recurring installments that mimic the frequency at which a UBI is distributed.
“Whether in the U.S. or Sweden, most of [the winners] kind of keep doing what they were doing before, but feel more comfortable. Most people keep working, take a bit more vacation, feel more financially secure, and that’s about it,” Marinescu said. “It suggests that the changes are not enormous, except for the fact of feeling more financially secure.”
Nearly 30 years after the conclusion of a well-known guaranteed income trial that was conducted in the tiny town of Dauphin, in Canada’s Manitoba Province, Evelyn Forget, a health economist and professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba, set out to debunk the same myth.
Known colloquially as “mincome,” the pilot in Dauphin had first launched in the 1970’s, she said, and researchers had been primarily interested in finding out whether or not basic income would cause recipients to work less or stop working altogether. According to Forget, their data showed a significant dropoff in employment in only two groups of Dauphin residents: new mothers, who had chosen to use the cash transfer to extend their maternity leave and spend more time with their infants, and “unattached males”—young men who were not married and had no children.
The fact that young men had appeared to work less “seemed to satisfy all the stereotypes people had—that is, if you give people a basic income, these young men are just going to run away from their responsibilities,” Forget said. But after seeking out some of those same “unattached males,” years later, further analysis soon confirmed what she had suspected all along: That the minimum income had, in fact, given their families the economic support to allow them to stay in school a bit longer instead of “dropping out at age 16 and going to get a job in agriculture and manufacturing” in order to help the struggling families stay afloat—an economic reality that had previously left many young men in the working-class town without options.
“Some of these boys stayed in school and graduated and went on to college,” Forget said. “And so when you measure employment outcomes, yeah they worked a lot less—they worked a lot less because they were staying in high school just a little longer.”
Education, Forget points out, is often a key determinant of health and well-being: The more educated you are, the healthier you likely are to be at any age. In addition to the revelation that the guaranteed income had paved the way for better educational opportunities for that group of young men, her analysis of health care system data also uncovered that the entire population that received a basic income had 8.5 percent fewer hospitalizations, relative to a matched control group—for accidents and injuries, but also for mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
American researchers are also investigating the connection between economic precarity and mental health, and have found that economic hardship is likely a leading factor in the recent sharp uptick in suicides, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related “deaths of despair” in the United States.
But just like the creation of more high-quality jobs won’t be enough to stanch the bleeding should our day of reckoning with the robot overlords come to pass, the implementation of a universal basic income won’t be enough to improve national mental health and reinvigorate a beleaguered American workforce on its own.
“People deserve to be able to put food on the table, but they also deserve to make choices and get to pursue passions. It’s about both things.” Foster said. “It harkens back to the labor call for bread and roses—people need both.”