Billionaire backlash shows the power of basic income

The success of basic income pilots in the US has been followed by efforts to kill such programmes. The rich are scared.

In this photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, Susie Garza displays the city provided debit card she receives monthly through a trial program in Stockton, Calif. Garza is participating in the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration. The program, which started in February, gives $500 a month to 125 people who earn at or below the median household income of $46,033. They can spend the money with no restrictions. Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, who initiated the privately funded program, says it could be a solution to the city's poverty problem. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Susie Garza displays the city-provided debit card through which she receives monthly payments as part of a basic income programme in Stockton, California on August 14, 2019 [File: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli]

Last month, the US state of Iowa enacted a law banning local governments from adopting basic income programmes. This follows similar developments in Arkansas, Idaho, and South Dakota.

In Texas, after lawmakers failed to get their own such law adopted, the state’s attorney general filed a case to prevent Harris County from launching the basic income pilot that its officials had authorised. Declaring the pilot “unconstitutional”, the attorney general has taken his case all the way to the Supreme Court of Texas. What is going on here? And why do the intricacies of seemingly obscure local US politics matter?

To answer these questions, we have to look into the radical potential that basic income has to reshape our social relations. Defined as a regular cash payment given unconditionally to all, a basic income can be thought of like a pension, only for everyone. Its purpose is to provide a permanent, base level of financial security for all people independent of work, recognising that if we lack money or the means to make it in the world of the market then we are in deep trouble.

Theoretically, the case for basic income is well-developed. It rests on the intuitive premise that ensuring people’s basic security will mitigate the effects of multiple societal ills, including racism and other forms of discrimination, and help improve individual and social wellbeing.

Morally, it rests on two historical truths. First, that not all wealth has been “earned” – plenty has been stolen, accumulated through violence and exploitation, or reproduced through cycles of inherited privilege. Second, poverty is political rather than personal – it is about where you are positioned in the social matrix rather than who you are and what you do.

Simply put, therefore, poverty and wealth are both about power – historical and contemporary – and how this plays out in people’s everyday lives. The idea behind basic income is to rebalance that power, redistributing it from those who have plenty to ensure that all have enough.

This moral case is strengthened by the decades of research that scholars have done to prove that social ills of all sorts have their roots in poverty. From physical and mental ill health to drug abuse, homelessness, and crime, many of the issues we face are causally related to being poor. Likewise, we know that exploitative work and domestic violence are easier to sustain and harder to resist when people lack the “freedom to say no” that money provides.

Crucially, these moral and theoretical cases have received enormous empirical backing over the past five years, as a wave of basic income pilots has spread around the world, particularly in the United States, where nearly 150 have sprung up since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sparked by the first mayor-led pilot in Stockton, California in 2019 and funded in large part by the COVID-19 relief money distributed by the federal government, local authorities across the country have been experimenting with unconditional cash as an upstream social policy intervention that could form the basis of a new welfare model.

The findings from these pilots are electric – improvements in well-being, education, entrepreneurship, maternal and child health; reductions in stress, depression, homelessness and recidivism. They provide enough evidence to support the effectiveness of basic income programmes.

Alongside these inspiring pilots, a movement has been developing in the US to call for the adoption of basic income as national policy. This movement includes influential progressive organisations, academic institutions, grassroots organisers, and even a nationwide coalition of elected officials, all of whom have rallied around the vision of basic income for all within the next decade. So well developed is this movement that polls suggest that a majority of Americans now favour some form of basic income.

The rising popularity of this policy is scaring conservative lawmakers, political lobbyists, and their billionaire backers. They recognise the potential in this movement at this time, particularly in its push to denaturalise poverty, wealth and the social bases of each.

They see the inherent danger that a progressively funded basic income would pose to their ever-increasing wealth. And they sense, perhaps even intuitively, the threat to their power immanent in a people able to survive without having to submit to the tyranny of the market. So, now they are acting, in classically Machiavellian fashion, to see the threat off at the pass.

That is why across the country we are seeing efforts to kill basic income programmes, like the attorney general’s legal challenge in Texas.

Exceptional investigative work by the basic income researcher and advocate Scott Santens shows that one of the organisations supporting the backlash against basic income is the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), which also crusades for causes such as banning free school meals and preventing the extension of Medicaid.

Predictably, the FGA is funded by hyper-conservative billionaires like Richard and Liz Uihlein, described by the New York Times as “the most powerful conservative couple you’ve never heard of”.

The FGA’s “research” on basic income is, also predictably, not worthy of the name. Its flagship publication – “Why States Should Ban Universal Basic Income Schemes” – features only a single peer-reviewed academic citation and reproduces multiple discredited tropes, including the idea that basic income “discourages work”, which the evidence overwhelmingly rejects.

For example, results in the largest basic income study involving 200 Kenyan villages showed that the distribution of monthly payments did not result in recipients leaving the workforce but promoted occupational choice.

Such studies and academic articles did not make it into FGA’s “research” because its aim is not to produce defensible scholarship but rather to develop the discursive weaponry needed as part of the overall hegemonic strategy of the billionaire class.

In this respect, the growing battle against basic income can be seen as a kind of a case study of hegemony at work, a classic example both of the tools the powerful use to maintain their position and the moments at which they choose to use them. For progressives, this can mean only one thing – that basic income might just be an idea whose time has come.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.