In the darkest hour of the coronavirus pandemic, in the face of an expected 30 percent unemployment rate and a likely new Great Recession, income-supplementing programs are springing up everywhere. And not just in those slow-to-arrive federal stimulus checks.
Here’s Project 100, a nonprofit, giving $1,000 to 100,000 U.S. families starting this week. There’s Spain’s government planning a basic income that will last beyond the crisis, Europe’s first. Brazil, having kicked around the idea of basic income for decades, just implemented it for 59 million people and their dependents, thanks to a 500,000-person strong grassroots campaign. “This may be time for a universal basic wage,” Pope Francis told the world in his 2020 Easter message. The world was, amazingly, way ahead of him.
Times of fear and unrest have also, historically, been great times to implement social safety nets. FDR brought in Social Security — effectively, basic income for seniors — at the bottom of the Great Depression. National healthcare systems sprung up across Europe after it was broken by World War II. Universal Basic Income was thrust into the spotlight in the 2010s over fears that automation will kill millions of jobs. COVID-19 could be the tipping point that actually implements it in the 2020s.
A $2,000 check for every American, every month of the crisis, has already been proposed as part of the coronavirus stimulus package bills, though it hasn’t yet made it out of the House finance committee. The public, rarely united around anything these days, is certainly in favor. This month a poll of over 2,000 likely voters indicates a majority of Americans — in both parties! — support $2,000 monthly payments for everyone for the duration of the crisis and one year after. Let UBI exist in America for a year, and it’s hard to imagine any politician dare remove it.
But beware, UBI proponents. Basic income isn’t as new an idea as you think, and it has been snatched away before by elite policymakers who just don’t trust the working poor to spend the given cash responsibly. To see how the same conflict arises time after time, you have to go back two centuries to a country beset not by a pandemic, but by famine, unemployment, and war.
The little village that could
These days, almost nobody knows about Speenhamland in Berkshire, England. The defunct hamlet isn’t listed on maps; even residents of nearby Newbury couldn’t tell you where it was. But it was there, 225 years ago next month, in a roadside pub for horse-drawn travelers called The Pelican, that a radical economic concept was written into being.
In Britain then, as in the world now, millions were out of work through no fault of their own. A bad harvest sent grain prices through the roof. Hoarders, black marketeers and a war with France made matters worse. Unemployment insurance wasn’t a thing. The out-of-work had two options. Those deemed “deserving poor” could go live in charitable almshouses; the rest went on what we’d call permanent workfare, indentured to landowners.
But in Speenhamland, radical officials wanted to try a new way of tackling its growing crisis: Just give people money, regularly, whether they’re working or not, with no strings attached. On May 7, 1795, they sat down over drinks at The Pelican and drew up a law that doled out a minimum of three shillings per month per person, or up to 7 shillings and sixpence if you had dependents.
It wasn’t a whole lot. One loaf of bread usually cost a shilling. But crucially, if the price of bread went up, so would the payout. The stigma of being a beneficiary was removed, because everyone was. Every family had a baseline of food and human dignity.
It was alternately known as the Speenhamland System or the Berkshire Bread Act. Whatever you called it, it was a sensation. Other local English authorities copied the system. Over the next four decades, with more shillings in more pockets, the local economy was able to weather crises like Napoleon’s blockade of Britain. Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger wanted to implement it nationwide.
Alas, he couldn’t get his bill through a pre-Great Reform Parliament that was having a hard time grasping the idea of democracy, let alone UBI.
And therein lay the problem. The Scrooge-like belief that you have to make the working class suffer, otherwise they wouldn’t want to work, was just too engrained in the ruling class. Thomas Malthus — clergyman, population doomster, 18th-century Thanos — believed the poor should be starved to prevent them from breeding too much. His pal, economist David Ricardo, said the Speenhamland System would lead to the collapse of food production altogether, with lazy peasants walking away from their plows.
These days, historians of the system credit it with contributing to the boom times of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. At the time, though, Malthus’ and Ricardo’s views prevailed. A Royal Commission was formed in 1834 that dismantled the Speenhamland System via a damning 13,000 page report based on interviews with recipients.
In its place they imposed a new Poor Law system based on the workhouse — effectively prison for the bankrupt and unemployed and orphaned, made infamous by Charles Dickens.
Workhouses, the report claimed dubiously, restored “frugal habits,” improved the “moral and social condition,” and reduced “wretched marriages” among the poor. And, by the way, as it turned out, workhouses would reduce England’s spending on those wastrels from 2 percent of its budget to 1 percent.
The Commission’s report has been cited by everyone from Communist guru Karl Marx to conservative economists as proof that basic income just didn’t work. One Ayn Rand acolyte in Richard Nixon’s administration summarized it it in a report to the president. That caused Nixon to waver on his commitment to what would have been a historic 1969 bill to give every American family $1,600 a year, or more than $10,000 in today’s dollars. He added workfare requirements, Senate Democrats balked, and the bill died.
Only one problem: The 1834 report was a fabrication. Later historical analysis showed that only 10 percent of the questionnaires the Commission claimed to have conducted were actually filled out. Besides, their questions were leading ones, and the Commission’s secretary was cooking up plans for a workhouse bill before the report had even started.
It was fake news, 19th-century style. But the damage had been done, and continues to be done.
The Basic Income Avengers
By 2010, UBI was pretty much dead as a political issue. Sure, it was popular in places where it was implemented under another name: Alaska’s Permanent Fund dividend, which distributes oil revenues equally to residents to the tune of about $2,000 a year, has been wildly popular in the deep red state since it was implemented in 1976.
But a Federal basic income? Fuggeddaboutit. Congress could barely stir itself to put the Band-Aid known as Obamacare on the U.S. healthcare system without screams of “government overreach!”
Still, something was stirring. Something that found imperfect expression in both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street protests. The working class was being decimated. The jobs lost in the 2008 crash weren’t coming back. Governments were obsessed with austerity at just the wrong time. Wages were stagnant while the top one percent of society became ever richer. And Big Tech wasn’t helping. In 2013, a landmark study from Oxford University calculated that 47 percent of all U.S. jobs were at risk of being lost to automation.
That report lit a fire under UBI advocates, who gathered in an unlikely forum: Reddit. Obsessive redditors gathered data from pilot programs around the world, as well as historical programs like the Speenhamland System. The true results, time and again, showed that people didn’t fritter away their handouts on booze and drugs. They invested in their future, saved it for rainy days, paid for their education.
More importantly, they were cured of the crippling anxiety over money that scientists say reduces our cognitive ability and makes us sick even if we imagine having large bills.
“Looking at the data is what got my interest,” says Scott Santens, a writer from New Orleans who developed a unique UBI concept. “You can have a philosophical debate about ideas like this, but here was data: UBI empowered people, increased entrepreneurship, reduced crime.” The data dovetailed with Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs: Once you’ve got the basics covered, you strive for the top of the pyramid.
In 2015, Santens posted his personal UBI plan on Reddit. He would crowdfund his own basic income of $1,000 a month; any donations he received beyond that, he’d pass on to others making a similar pledge. In return, he would spend his days making speeches and writing articles promoting UBI, taking whatever payment he could get for them.
As unusual as that sounded, Santens became the world’s first crowdfunded UBI recipient in 2016, and hasn’t received less than $1,000 a month since. Even the coronavirus crisis hasn’t cut the crowdfunding. (It helps, Santens says, that the average donor’s contribution is just $7.)
The new UBIers made bold moves. In 2017, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman published a popular rallying cry for UBI called Utopia for Realists. Two years later he was the star of the most viral video from Davos, where he took attendees to task for not paying their fair share of taxes. Santens met and advised a nonprofit founder called Andrew Yang who was thinking of running for president on a platform of giving everyone in the U.S. $1,000 a month. “I thought ‘if he can get to raise the issue in one debate, that would be great,'” Santens says. “Everything else was gravy.”
In fact, Yang made it to the debate stage eight times before crashing out of the race in New Hampshire in early February. By then, he was one of the few Democrats who could legitimately claim to have founded a movement, the “Yang Gang,” known on Twitter by their blue cap emoji. Perhaps most importantly, Yang introduced a new name for Universal Basic Income, which was always something of a mouthful, and greeted with suspicion by right-wing voters. He called it the “freedom dividend.”
The month after Yang dropped out, the pandemic struck. He became an advocate for the Project 100 plan. Polls had suggested UBI was opposed by 52 percent of the public in 2018 (with about 3,300 people surveyed) and 57 percent in 2019 (with 1,000 people surveyed). By the end of March 2020, a survey of 2,200 people found it had 66 percent support.
“This really is a glimpse at a future with a lot less work,” Santens says of our new COVID-19 reality. “Only instead of happening gradually, it happened all at once.” (Santens is now advising one of Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Democratic challengers, who is running on a UBI platform.)
We don’t yet live in a world where any country has passed a law providing a properly universal, non-means-tested, regular income. But with so many countries now chasing the idea as a coronavirus stimulus, it seems a question of when, not if.
In the meantime, UBI forces had better marshal their arguments and work on more popular names for their system (“freedom dividend” works pretty well, but how about piggybacking on another popular program and calling it “Social Security for All?”). Because if history tells us anything, it’s that reactionaries are coming for any kind of coronavirus UBI just as they came for Speenhamland. You’d best be ready, willing to fight back, and well-funded in advance.