Rebrand Universal Basic Income? Why Its Biggest Advocates Say It's Time

"Freedom dividend," anyone?

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Universal basic income may have a branding problem.

The idea generally involves giving almost everyone a fixed monthly sum of money, and has been touted as the potential solution to growing robot automation, an A.I.-powered economy, and way to restore fraying trust in institutions. But some of its biggest proponents have come out against its common name, arguing that it may muddy the waters and fails to effectively communicate the policy.

Guy Standing, a research associate at SOAS, University of London, argued in an OpenDemocracy article Thursday that the term “universal” paints a misleading picture.

“I want to make it clear that sensible advocates of basic income do not or should not use the word ‘universal’, because in practice some people would not be entitled to it — non-resident citizens and short-term or undocumented migrants,” Standing wrote, arguing that the alternative of “universal basic services” advocated by some experts suffers from a similar issue.

Standing’s assessment chimes with other campaigners’ experiences. Scott Santens, one of the movement’s leading voices, tells Inverse that people sometimes assume the scheme means free money for all without any changes to the tax code, changes that could lead to some paying more into the system than they receive back in basic income. This misunderstanding means that people wonder where the money comes from, or how it would avoid driving up inflation.

“I do agree with Guy that universal can and does confuse people into a poor understanding of UBI,” Santens says.

Dropping that name, however, may be easier said than done. “Universal basic income” is usually how newcomers refer to it, as it succinctly summarizes the policy’s key promises while also capturing its boldness. Basic income could perhaps work, and Google Trends suggests that people already use these two terms somewhat interchangeably. But “basic income” hardly captures the policy’s boldness.

UBI over time.
UBI over time.

How Should Advocates Sell the “UBI”?

Standing is not the only one to shun the name in public discussion. Santens instead refers to himself on Twitter as an “unconditional basic income advocate.” This, he explains, is because he considers that to be a more important aspect of the policy rather than because of any intense dislike for the term “universal.”

“I believe stressing unconditionality helps people better understand that UBI is about far more than money,” Santens says. “We’re not just giving people a raise. We’re saying that people as a right cannot be excluded from what they need to live. Existence cannot be made conditional on doing approved work for those who legally exclude people from life-sustaining resources.”

Jack Perry, a Glasgow-based campaigner, explained in a December 2018 post that he dropped the term “universal” after another member of a panel discussion kept confusing it with universal credit, the British government’s ongoing reforms to the existing benefits system.

“With universal credit etched into our collective psyche as a punitive and destructive policy, there is the potential for similarly named social security policies to be tarred with the same brush,” Perry wrote.

But this kind of problem is not limited to the U.K. Andrew Yang, currently seeking Democratic nomination for president of the United States, is running on a universal basic income platform in all but name. His headline policy would give $1,000 per month to every American adult over the age of 18. But while Yang is closely identified with the movement, he has an alternative name for the policy: the “Freedom Dividend.” For Yang, the decision was primarily about branding.

“Who can be against the ‘freedom dividend?’” Yang said in comments reported by Politico. “What kind of an asshole do you have to be?”

Yang has also suggested that he chose the title as it performed better in polling. That chimes with similar results from Gallup polls, which show that slightly more Americans are against a universal basic income than support it.

Other politicians have also put their own spin on branding, if not to better communicate its quirks. Rahul Gandhi, who ran in India’s election in April on a minimum income guarantee, would have given 72,000 rupees ($1,040) per year to the poorest 20 percent of families. While it could help meet Gandhi’s goals of eliminating poverty, it drops the requirement that everyone regardless of income level receives the payments.

An alternative name gaining traction in the United Kingdom is the citizen’s basic income. The name may communicate how the idea would work in practice, but the implied nationality check could reduce the universality envisioned by some. Perry, questioning the name, argued that “on a moral level, it seems wrong to deprive refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants a Basic Income just because they don’t have citizenship.”

Santens has argued that basic income will become a reality in the United States by 2035. The title chosen by the policy’s architects could shape the decisions around its limitations, which is perhaps why the argument over a name is so important.

Part of the reason that UBI is so appealing as an idea is that it simply sounds bold, far more so than most of the policy proposals for how to ameliorate poverty. But this boldness may have come at a cost, making it easier to pick the proposal apart, or claim that it is too expensive or unworkable to become a reality. But as the conversation shifts from “is UBI workable” to “how should it be sold to the public,” it might be time for advocates re-evaluate the name itself.

Update 06/10 12:17 p.m.: An earlier version of this article claimed that the basic income payment as outlined by Santens would be taxable. It has now been corrected.