Unconditional Basic Income: The Best Idea You’ve Never Heard


by  Morgaine Swann

In August 2016, I saw a Ted Talk given by Rutger Bregman called “Why we should give everyone a basic income.” He made a couple of points that really hit home with me. First, he stated that Utopian ideals have a tendency to come true. At one time, ending slavery was a Utopian ideal. Civil rights, equal rights for men and women, democracy, were all utopian ideals that eventually came true as we as humans have progressed.  He stated that the Basic Income might be “one the biggest ideas of the 21st century” and I think he’s right. In fact, I think he’s right, right now. The developed world is enjoying a level of prosperity that was unimaginable just a few decades ago. There are problems, of course, but we’re in the richest country, ever. What is our Utopian ideal now? In my opinion the ultimate Utopian ideal is to eradicate poverty.

Bregman states during his talk that it has been estimated that it would take 175 billion dollars to eliminate poverty in America. That sounds like an incredible amount of money until you know that it is only one quarter of our military budget. That idea hit me like a ton of bricks. I used to be a civilian employee of the Defense Department. There’s plenty of fluff in our Military budget and taking 25% of it wouldn’t cause a ripple. We might have to cut out things like building jets that nobody wants or needs as we do now, but it won’t reduce our safety in any way.

No more poverty! An America with no poverty is possible! I grew up hearing from Christian relatives that the “poor will always be with us” which is a phrase used to excuse the fact that we don’t really intend to do anything about poverty because it’s too big and even the Bible says it can’t be done. Then Bregman states what should be the obvious – that poverty is not a lack of integrity or morality, it’s a lack of money. This was the first time that I really understood, in my bones, that we can end poverty in my lifetime.

Tonight in America:

 600,000 people are homeless

138,000 of them are children

57,000 of them are Veterans (Nearly 5,000 of whom are female)

1 in 5 homeless people suffers from untreated severe mental illness.


What makes people homeless in America? Foreclosures, inability to pay rent, lack of housing for the poor, mental illness, catastrophic illness that eats away at a person’s savings if they were lucky enough to have any in the first place. If America started providing an Unconditional Basic Income to every citizen, most of those problems would be resolved. If we were to add “Medicare for All” to the package, poverty would no longer exist in this country. Think about that.

Next, Bregman cited the 3 most common objections to unconditional basic income:

  1. It’s too expensive” – but we’re in the richest country, ever, so that’s no excuse. We have the money. All we need is the will to do it.
  2. “People are lazy and will stop working if their basic needs are met.” Not true. Most people want to contribute something to society. People are more likely to finish school, more likely to go to college, and they can earn income over and above their unconditional basic income. People get healthier, happier, crime goes down, the economy goes up because people are actually spending money that wasn’t actively in the economy before.
  3. “It will never happen.” It almost did happen! Richard Nixon proposed a Basic income for Americans and it passed in the House of Representatives! It got side-tracked in the Senate. It was all but forgotten because Nixon had other problems in those days.

There are countries right now doing experiments with some form of basic income. Finland will have a test program covering 2,000 citizens for the length of 2017. Canada had an experiment in the not too distant past, creating the “town with no poverty.” Other European countries are considering similar programs.

There’s another very powerful reason to consider the Basic Income and that is automation. Our culture is facing an onslaught of automation that is going to put a lot of people out of their jobs. Half of all jobs will be affected.  A lot of those people are going to be at a disadvantage in the job market, which will skew in favor of younger workers with higher education in most cases.

  1. Buckminster Fuller said:

One in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a wage.”

Work weeks are going to get shorter – that’s a given. Imagine working a 25-hour week due to job sharing. Can you survive on that? There’s a writer named Scott Santens who specializes in writing about the Basic Income, and has managed to get himself a crowd-sourced basic income of about a thousand dollars a month. He thinks that would likely be the amount individuals would receive if the government were to do this. He says he lives on it with no problem but he has other income sources. I’m disabled and live on less than $1200 a month but because it’s disability, I’m not allowed to work on top of it. If the idea is really to let people have breathing room, I think the amount should be around $1500 a month per citizen. If we do ever get a basic income, it might not affect those of us who are disabled, depending on what social services we give up in order to get it. It might include the disabled, or not, it might include health insurance or not, might replace any cash assistance low income families now received, depending on what Congress did to the proposal once somebody gets it in for a vote.

So why do I care if it might not affect me? I believe that if we have the capability to alleviate poverty, we have an obligation to do so. I don’t want to live in an America where 138,000 children have no home. I don’t want to know that 57,000 veterans are not getting the assistance they need. I want to live in a kinder, more civilized America and we can do it.

So, I’m going to do the very limited thing  I’m able to do to move us in that direction. That will mostly consist of Twitter posts to politicians and political personalities and little articles like this. The first step is to let people know this is possible. I think that the more people see the term #BasicIncome, the more likely it becomes so I’ll be putting it out there. I’ll write about it in case there are people who want to read about it. If you have any questions, leave me a comment and I’ll do what I can to get you an answer. I’ve barely scratched the surface on what a basic income can do for our society. Know this – an America without poverty is possible.


4 thoughts on “Unconditional Basic Income: The Best Idea You’ve Never Heard

  1. Stephen Stillwell says:

    Perhaps a different perspective?

    If we can set nationalism aside, for a moment, and accept that welfare programs in the wealthiest of countries can not address the problem of world poverty, or even provide the suggested benefits reliably, we can see that a structure to provide global economic enfranchisement, with its accompanying Basic Income, would cost no more, and would provide significantly more benefit.

    By simply requiring sovereign debt to be backed with Commons shares, that may be claimed by each adult human on the planet, for deposit in trust with their bank, as part of an actual social contract, we recognize, distribute, and secure, some value of the commons for the direct benefit of each.


    Thanks for your kind indulgence


    • morgaineswann says:

      It’s nice to meet you, Stephen Stillwell. I’ve read through your Wikipedia entry and I’m not an economist so I can’t speak to the specifics of your proposal. The wealth and inequality gaps among nations are wrong, there’s no doubt and if your proposal is offered as the desirable end of a global process, I think it’s a worthy goal. That process would take a long time and global agreement among factions with competing and sometimes diametrically opposed goals. While we organize ourselves as nations, nationalism is unavoidable at the beginning of the process. The developed nations are in a situation where most of them can level income inequality within their borders in a relatively brief span of time. I’m in the US, and while I am I don’t think addressing our immediate situation is isolationist. Many governments are beginning to explore the possibility of Unconditional Basic Income in some form or another for their own citizens.


  2. morgaineswann says:

    Continued: within the United States, we have large groups of people in impoverished situations and right now, right here, some of that can be addressed within months, not years. I want us to make that first step in the process now. I want to drive through our cities and see no homeless veterans sleeping over grates in the sidewalk. I want 138,000 kids to go to sleep under a good roof in a stable home. We can’t fix all the workd’s problems at once but we can absolutely start here.


  3. Stephen Stillwell says:

    Perhaps the point was obscured in some way.

    You see the single state welfare programs do not address the problems effectively, and many do not even provide a basic income.

    The difficulties involved with creating such welfare programs are likely more complex than creating a fairly simple international banking regulation, and the global structure actually provides individual sovereignty, along with a Universal Basic Income, that is consistent globally, which is the only way to end the exploitation of labor, along with a number of other harmful and counterproductive institutions.

    Moreover, establishing this simple global structure would not interfere with any additional, or supplementary plans or programs relative to the various nations, in fact, by creating local social contracts, each community will have the opportunity to consider and address local expectations, and more clearly determine their paths moving forward into an economy of plenty.

    If the US and other wealthy states establish these welfare programs, the developing world will continue to have their resources exploited by multinational corporations, and those developed nations. So isolationism is not the problem so much as maintaining the status quo.

    Perhaps it was unclear, but the cost of establishing the structure for global economic enfranchisement would be negligible, so it would not effect any short term fixes you believe could be enacted, in months. Though I don’t understand how you think that is possible, considering that it will be months before anyone in Washington is doing anything, and whichever president we have, there is little likelihood that our congress will agree on any useful program.

    The notion hardly requires an economist to understand, the simplicity is actually quite confusing to them, and like you, they refuse to consider how it would actually effect any given concern, how simply it could be manifest, and the benefits of a global conversation.

    Establishing this simple structure is more likely to provide more benefit to more people, in less time, than any group of single state welfare programs. It is just one banking regulation, that requires no fine tuning for various factions, regardless of their goals. These conflicts can only be softened with the establishment of global economic enfranchisement, if not made moot, particularly since most global unrest is directed toward US/corporate hegemony, and global economic enfranchisement is a mediating factor.

    I have no interest in fixing all the worlds’ problems, just in getting everyone paid, and that can be accomplished by embracing nationalism, and exploring how our country can better compete with a level playing field, how this will open markets, create markets, and provide opportunities that will never exist without global economic enfranchisement.

    I’m also in the US, 100% disabled veteran, grew up outside DC, delivered the Washington Post for several years, and I am less than optimistic for anything useful coming out of there. (the claim process took 6 1/2 years, and my claim was only the form with one continuation sheet)

    A thing to be aware of, about economics, and economists: no one agrees, no one is correct enough to make reliable predictions, it’s all based on assumptions, so there is little to persuade me against doing the right thing, when an argument can’t even be formed against it.

    Thanks for reading the thing though, it is an effort I’ve pursued for a number of years, and I hope to get it comprehensible eventually.


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