• 12.12.16

What Will It Take To Get A Universal Basic Income In The U.S.?

A new $10 million initiative is examining how we can maintain our society in the age of automation.

What Will It Take To Get A Universal Basic Income In The U.S.?
[Photos: eugenesergeev/iStock]

With income inequality on the rise and the American Dream an illusion for more and more Americans, lots of people are calling for a universal basic income (UBI) to be part of our future. A stipend paid to every man, woman and child in the U.S., a UBI could end poverty, reduce government bureaucracy, and spur creativity and meaningful work, people across the political spectrum say.


But exactly how a UBI might work in practice is still a big open question. We have to work out, for example, how to pay for a UBI (the cost might be $2.7 trillion a year, according to one estimate), exactly who should get it (should it go to people who really need it or everyone?), whether it should be a local or federal program, and whether it should be paid in addition to other benefits, or replace them. As yet, we don’t have enough research or real-world pilots to understand, one, whether UBI will deliver as promised, and, two, whether it’s feasible in the real world. One major uncertainty: will UBI encourage people to work or encourage them to be lazy?

To answer these questions, a $10 million initiative launched this week to fund organizations to research UBI. Backed by more than 100 activists, researchers, and technologists, the Economic Security Project (ESP) looks to turn theory into practice and get into the nitty-gritty of how UBI would work in the American context.

“There is a massive consensus, on the left and the right, that the the economy is rigged against everyday people . . . People are losing faith that the American Dream is a reality for their children,” said Chris Hughes, cofounder of Facebook, and one in the project’s backers, in a conference call. “There’s a new sense of urgency for this work in the last few weeks.”

Hughes, who co-chairs the ESP, also sits on the board of Give Directly, which advocates “direct cash transfers” to the poor, as opposed to traditional charity. Give Directly could be a model for UBI, Hughes said, and GD currently has a large-scale UBI pilot in Kenya that it hopes will inform wider research.

Initial recipients of ESP research grants include the Center for Popular Democracy, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network–which advocates a tax on carbon emissions to pay for UBI–and the Roosevelt Institute. “Education will not be the magic bullet to our current economy and our future economy,” said Dorian Warren, fellow at the Institute. “We need other ideas with the onslaught of automation.”

Other supporters of the ESP include Albert Wenger, managing partner of New York venture capital fund Union Square Ventures, Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator (which is planning its own UBI pilot), and Robin Chase, cofounder of Zipcar. “We need more data, and more experiments, to really inform a conversation,” said Hughes in the conference call.


See more about the project here.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.