Universal basic income isn’t a new idea. Variations of the concept — that all citizens, regardless of their career, should have a guaranteed wage — date back to the 16th century, but it’s never been successfully implemented. But the 21st century has something the 16th century didn’t have: robots. And as automated workers take more and more jobs from human beings, basic income might be the only way to keep the country’s economy afloat.
On July 5, the White House hosted a Facebook Live roundtable with technology entrepreneur Robin Chase and author Martin Ford. Chase and Ford focused on the state of employment in the United States, and the growing effects of automation. They didn’t bother discussing which political party would bring more jobs back, or how other countries are stealing America’s jobs, but they did say universal basic income was America’s best chance to survive an automated future.
Chase and Ford aren’t the first to discuss a UBI program in the United States either. President Richard Nixon briefly championed a version of guaranteed income before social and political pressures turned him off of the idea.
Yet technological automation is a major force present in modern talks about universal basic income that Nixon didn’t have to contend with. Technology doesn’t care what race you are, or whether you’re a blue collar or white collar worker. In a way, automation is the great equalizer, and it may be enough to make UBI an inescapable reality.
The closest the United States ever got to a basic income was in 1969. Both sides of the political spectrum were unhappy with the welfare system. Nixon was fighting the War on Poverty, and Martin Luther King was calling for the government to provide every American with a middle-class income. The idea of a government-provided living wage was very much a part of the public discourse.
Nixon, King, and others were championing a guaranteed income, however, not a universal income. Government funds would be allocated only to the working poor, not every man, woman, and child. In Nixon’s plan, a family of four would get the equivalent of around $10,000 per year.
Crucially, the idea wasn’t based on people losing jobs because of technology. It was designed as a fix to the welfare system based on the prevailing social and political ideology. The idea was to help the poor and vulnerable survive, but when Nixon hired researchers to run a pilot project, the results showed a guaranteed income could do much more.
Women used the money to earn degrees, couples focused on creating art, and their children’s high school graduation rates rose 30 percent, Jacobin Magazine found in the research results. In other words, people in the pilot program didn’t have to grind day in day out to scratch a living out of infertile dirt. “People withdrew from the labor market, but the kind of labor market withdrawal you got was the kind you would welcome,” Michael Howard, a philosophy professor at the University of Maine, tells Inverse.
In general, though, additions to welfare and withdrawals from the labor market — essentially, less people working or wanting to work — are contentious ideas in America. In a highly automated society with universal basic income, some citizens just won’t work — and that isn’t a concept that fits with the traditional model of American economics and society.
“I think that the main cultural barrier is the idea that so-called able-bodied people should work for their income and their sanity,” Michael Lewis, an associate professor at the City University of New York, tells Inverse.
That cultural barrier was too high in the late 1960s and early 1970s, no matter what the research said about quality of life. A futurist named Robert Theobald was one of the only people claiming that technology would create such a scarcity of jobs that a true universal basic income would be needed.
Lewis says that many Americans still have ingrained racial biases that they associate with work ethic, which further complicates support for a guaranteed or basic income.
“We have a pretty intense form of work ethic in part because our views about work ethic and people freeloading, getting something for nothing, also interacts with views about race,” Lewis says. “On the part of many folks in this country, those thought of as lazy and asking for handouts are brown and black.”
Blue-collar work has already seen the effects of automation. Factories need fewer human workers as machines do more and more of the heavy lifting. Field hands have been replaced by automated harvesters. People of color make up a large part of the blue-collar workforce in America, and the march toward automation disproportionately affects their job prospects.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 21 percent of industrial truck and tractor operators are black, and 26 percent are latino. Twenty-eight percent of bus drivers are black, and 14 percent are latino. The rapid improvement in autonomous driving technology could make those jobs obsolete in the foreseeable future. But technology isn’t only going to affect just one job sector.
“Impacts from automation have thus far impacted mostly blue-collar employment,” a Pew study on the future of work states, “the coming wave of innovation threatens to upend white-collar work as well.”
Automation will affect people of all races, in all areas of work. White collar jobs held predominantly by white people like medical transcriptionists, optometrists, and cartographers are subject to becoming obsolete by automation just as much as bus drivers. Even journalists — who are 90 percent white — could start losing their jobs to an algorithm like the one the Associated Press uses to write financial news.
“Automation and A.I. and robots, they’re taking over jobs across the economy,” Lewis says. “No skill jobs, high skilled jobs, my job. If that’s happening then I think it becomes more difficult to sustain this idea that ‘people are not working because they’re lazy.’”
Lewis thinks the idea that universal basic income is necessary will catch on as more and more people lose their jobs to automation. Technology is the equalizer of race, education, and class because it takes jobs indiscriminately.
“For a country that is so committed to work ethic, the only way to convince people that a basic income is necessary is if they are convinced that people can’t find work,” Lewis says. “If it’s going to happen, automation is going to bring it about.”
Silicon Valley, the epicenter of development for some the most job-destroying technologies, is also at the center of the United States basic income conversation.
Y Combinator, a startup incubator, recently announced that it will fund research on the effects of a basic income. The research will give between 30 and 50 people in Oakland a basic income of $1,500 to $2,000 a month for a full year. Y Combinator will check in with the subjects and monitor how they do with a guaranteed income, and report their findings.
Of course, pilot projects can never determine the true effects of a universal basic income. People will act differently in a pilot because they know that their basic income is only for a set amount of time, and because the people around them don’t have the same guarantee. The only way to know for sure is if the United States decides to “institute it, fine tune it, and fix it as you go along,” Howard says.
In June, voters in Switzerland firmly rejected a plan for basic income, although the notion has cropped up repeatedly in that country in the past several years.
The July talk at the White House was an important step in reintroducing the concept to the American public. It also acknowledges that the White House is looking at it in a different way than the past, and relying on tech innovators to lead the discussion.
No matter who is the next president, she or he will be faced with a changing job market due to automation. One answer might not be as radical as it seems.
“Despite years and years of anti-poverty programs, we still have a huge amount of poverty in America and around the world,” Howard says. “The simplest solution to poverty is just to give people the money they need.”
Technology could level the playing field enough for that solution to become a reality.