Income Security, Disruptive Technologies, and Addressing the Social Safety Net: Policy Perspectives on Universal Basic Income

(Two-minute read)

Policy in Brief:

Eight world-renouned experts in fields such as philosophy, economics, law, political science, history, and sociology debate Universal Basic Income.

Fascinating Features:

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a program that provides payments to everyone in a given community—whether local, state, or national. This stipend would have no strings attached and individuals would receive a UBI regardless of their personal economic condition or employment status. In theory, UBI should be able to provide an amount sufficient to pay for an individual’s basic necessities

There is worldwide interest in UBI policies from the municipal level in the United States to European-wide initiatives debated in the European Union.

Proponents of UBI support the policy initiative for four main reasons::

  • Fear that automation and artificial intelligence will displace workers
  • Realization that current social safety-net programs neither provide jobs nor eliminate poverty
  • Desire to address rising inequalities
  • Aspiration to remunerate individuals for care work, volunteering, and environmentally sustainable lifestyles

Opponents of UBI typically are against it on moral and economic grounds.

The eight contributors to the roundtable discussion argued for or against UBI in the following ways:

  • Georg Arndt and Karl Wiederquist argue that the actual cost of UBI policy options are far less than the gross cost, but far more difficult to calculate. They contend that the gross cost of UBI is misleading because a substantial amount of UBI is paid for by individuals based on the income they already earn. For example, if the government taxes an individual $5,000 and then pays that person a dividend of $5,000, the net cost of UBI for that individual is zero dollars. Thus, Arndt and Widerquist argue that any argument against UBI based on gross costs without discussing exact tax burden and marginal tax rates are misleading and not very useful in the overall debate of the topic.
  • Dave Canarie argues that UBI is staggeringly expensive, that inherited wealth, interest, and dividend payments are not decoupled from labor but directly tied to labor, that wealth and success is not always linked to luck and privilege, and that abandoning our current social safety net for the experiment of UBI is too great a risk when the consequences of failure are a burden of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
  • Luisa Deprez notes that income is not keeping pace with the cost of basic needs, especially in the state of Maine. Further exacerbating matters is the precariousness of social safety-net programs at the federal level. With income inequality on the rise and current programs proving ineffective at solving the issue of poverty, Deprez calls for careful review of the literature regarding UBI and for a serious debate of its feasibility as a policy option at the state level instead of merely dismissing it as “not ready for prime time.”
  • Philip Harvey argues that UBI fails to secure both the right to work and the right to income security as highlighted by the United Nations. In fact, by providing everyone with the same income stipend, UBI, because of its universality, provides no additional compensation to displaced workers, nor does it provide low-wage earners with additional real income. Harvey notes that even though UBI is currently fiscally unattainable, the opportunity costs are also prohibitively high. Instead, monies should be focused on job programs that get able-bodied individuals into the workforce and on providing truly unstigmatized livable income to those in society unable to be self-supporting.
  • Michael Howard provides summary comments on the arguments contained in the roundtable. He addresses the economic and social costs and opportunities of UBI.
  • Daniel S. Soucier argues that the technological changes wrought by automation and artificial intelligence may be no more disruptive than technological changes that have occurred in the past. Instead technological change often leads to unforeseen economic opportunities and eventual economic growth. He also argues that abandoning our current social safety net, which has been built on decades of worker displacement due to disruptive technologies, is misguided policy.
  • Almaz Zelleke argues that UBI is far superior to our current social safety net programs. Its universality ensures no one falls through the cracks. Its unconditionality provides income for those who contribute to society outside of the traditional workforce. Its flat benefit does not penalize individuals who improve their status through the combining of households or through part-time, seasonal, and temporary employment. Further, UBI is an ethical statement by society that everyone deserves access to the means necessary to a healthy and productive life. Zelleke closes by contending that the best way to get UBI into the national agenda—as with many initially controversial policy measures—is to implement it in a few forward-thinking states such as Maine.

Dig Deeper:

Howard, Michael et al. “Income Security, Disruptive Technologies, and Addressing the Social Safety Net: Policy Perspectives on Universal Basic Income.” Maine Policy Perspectives.

From MPR’s Archive:

Beamer, Glenn. “State Earned Income Tax Credits and “Making Work Pay”: How Maine Might Help Workers.” Maine Policy Review 16.1 (2007) : 46 -53,

Canarie, Dave. “Not Ready for Prime Time: A Response to “Universal Basic Income: Policy Options at National, State, and Local Levels.” Maine Policy Review 28.1 (2019) : 76 -78.

Howard, Michael W. “Universal Basic Income: Policy Options at National, State, and Local Levels.” Maine Policy Review 27.2 (2018) : 38 -42.

Related Resources:

Chui, Michael, James Manyika, and Mehdi Miremadi. 2016. “Where Machines Could Replace Humans and Where They Can’t (Yet).” McKinsey Quarterly (July, 2016).

McFarland, Kate. 2017a. “Current Basic Income Experiments (and Those
So Called): An Overview.” Basic Income News (May 23, 2017).

Widerquist, Karl. 2017. “The Cost of Basic Income: Back-of-the-Envelope Calculations.” Basic Income Studies 12(2): 107.