‘Let’s Give Them Money’: Could Guaranteed Income Be a Solution To Wealth Inequality?

Jan 15, 2020, 11:00 AM

The latest podcast from writer and activist Mia Birdsong and The Nation explores how a “Guaranteed Income” might actually transform people’s lives.

This is the first episode in a new podcast mini-series from me, Mia Birdsong, and The Nation. More Than Enough is about guaranteed income, deservedness, dignity, and the country America can and should be. We hope you’ll subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app. New episodes will premiere each Wednesday. But first, a bit about how this podcast came about.

A few years ago, I found myself in a sun-lit conference room full of policy makers, academics, and social justice advocates talking about what a guaranteed income policy might look like. After more than two decades doing intersectional social justice work, much of it advocating for giving cash directly to people who experience economic injustice, I was excited by the conversation.

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard about guaranteed income. You’ve probably heard about it by now, too—everyone from Silicon Valley titans to presidential hopefuls are talking about guaranteed income (also called universal basic income) as a way to deal with increasing automation and runaway inequality. I first heard about the concept in college in the mid-90s through the 1967 writings of Martin Luther King Jr. In the year before King was assassinated, he wrote “the time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty” by providing a basic level of material well-being to allow all Americans to truly flourish. To be honest, when I first read that, I thought it sounded ridiculous. Free money went against everything I'd learned about being a respectable citizen. But people change and our ideas evolve. I no longer think guaranteed income is absurd.

When it comes to economic injustice in the United States, we have a well-established practice of talking about people who are poor but not listening to them. We try to solve the problem without talking to the people closest to it. As a result, we’ve created a lot of bad policy that treats poor people as a problem to solve instead of the holders of the solutions. (The actual problem to solve is wealth hoarding.) Back at that conference a few years ago, I was thrilled about the genuine interest in implementing guaranteed income, with its underlying ethos of self-determination and trusting people to do what is best for them. But I was wary of any movement that didn’t include the voices and leadership of the people it was meant to support. So I brought up this critical omission. Instead of being challenged, as I often am, heads were nodding, and I was asked to do something about it. So I did. This podcast is the result.

I reached out to activists, advocates, and service providers across the country to set up workshops with groups of people who are living at the shit end of all our collective money distribution problem. I went to six cities—from Jackson, Mississippi, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Los Angeles, California, and heard from more than 100 people. I did a dozen phone interviews with advocates like Ai-Jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Aisha Nyandoro of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, and Anand Giridharadas, writer of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.

The stories were overwhelmingly powerful—partly because of how unnecessarily traumatic and difficult economic injustice has made people’s lives, but also because of how innovative, determined, and collaborative people are when it comes to surviving and imagining a better future for themselves, their families, and their communities. When it came to the idea of guaranteed income, what I heard was an overwhelming “yes.” There was a wide range of things people said about the difference it would make in their lives, and none of it was surprising. 

A woman in Jackson said she’d go on vacation for the first time in 10 years. That vacation would be driving with her kids two states over to Georgia to visit family her children had never met. A mother from LA said she’d pay the legal fees necessary to help her parents emigrate to the US. A young man from San Francisco would help his sisters out with diapers and clothes for his nieces and nephews. People talked about paying off debt, going back to school, working less so they could spend more time with their kids, caring for aging parents, saving for a house, buying a car, starting businesses, and taking their family to Disney World. It was all of the regular things people do when they don’t have to worry so much about money. 

As I was having these conversations, I was also talking about guaranteed income to a lot of audiences at conferences and seminars (this is what happens when you become one of, like, four Black people publicly talking about guaranteed income). Most of these audiences were liberal or progressive. And I was struck by the two main concerns that often came up. 

The first is best summed up as, “But, how can we pay for it?” That’s not really the question people are asking though. We are the wealthiest nation in the world. The question isn’t, can we pay for it? But, do we want to? This question is really about who we fundamentally want to be as a nation. Do we want to ensure that everyone has access to the basic human rights that cash can enable? Or do we want to continue to be a country where people are saddled with medical and education debt, working multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet, and living on the street because the rents to damn high?

The second question was, “But what about X other important super thing (like education or health care)?” And I kept thinking, Why do we think we have to choose? People on the left keep behaving as if we are sitting at someone else’s table. And we compromise before we even get there. I get it, there are so many pieces that need to come together to get us to the future we actually want and every one will require a fight. But I think we need to demand more, not less. I’m so pleased to see candidates like Warren, Sanders, and Castro, when he was still in the race advocating for multiple bold policies. We deserve all of it! (Yes, the candidate who is actually talking about guaranteed income, Andrew Yang, is missing from my list. This is because his plan would gut welfare benefits and I think that’s a non-starter for any genuinely progressive guaranteed income proposal. As you’ll hear in the podcast, there are strange bedfellows in the guaranteed income world.)

Guaranteed income isn’t a silver bullet (and let’s stop looking for silver bullets, because there are none). But I think it's a policy worth exploring. Perhaps even more importantly, it invites us to have a long overdue conversation about deservedness. 

Capitalism conspires with racism and sexism to tell us that personhood is earned through paid labor. It tells us that our humanity is conditional. It saw we have to prove ourselves worthy of basic human rights like shelter, food, education, and healthcare. It has us taking pride in working later and not getting enough sleep because demonstrating “productivity” is one of its highest virtues. We believe that hard work equals success. We accept the idea that people who aren’t successful must not be working hard enough. If they are not working hard enough they are not proving that they are deserving.

It's utter nonsense that people who are poor are not working hard—in the podcast you’ll hear from people working multiple jobs, people working exhausting shifts, all just to keep food on the table for themselves and their families . But that’s not even the point. The point is, we do not have to earn our human rights. A total slacker is just as deserving of a roof over their head, food in their bellies, and access to schools and healthcare. 

We need a new story of what America is that tells us this: Our worthiness, our value as human beings, is intrinsic to our very existence. It’s not something we have to earn and not something we can un-earn. We need a story that says success is a collective endeavor, that connection and care are the values we should use to measure our achievements. We need a story that starts with the assertion that there is more than enough for all of us.

Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app. 

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Show Notes

More Than Enough was developed by Next River Productions. Created and hosted by Mia Birdsong. Audio engineering and music by Nino Moschella. Script development and production by Allison Cook. The content of this podcast was informed by the stories of hundreds of people across the country, only some of whom you heard from. Thank you to everyone who took the time to speak with me and share their story.

Support for the production of More Than Enough was provided by a few generous folks and the Economic Security Project, an organization advancing cash-based interventions in the United States and reigning in corporate monopolies.

More Than Enough is a project of The Nation Magazine.