America finally tries a basic income: Will it work?

Nick DeMarchis, Opinions Co-Editor

Most Americans won’t end up listening to the full 10 hour table read of the long-awaited 628-page COVID-19 relief bill, in spite of supplications by Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. But, buried in the bureaucratic tendencies of government that we’ve all come to know and love, there is a nugget of real hope. It’s not just the $1,400 one-time stimulus checks now including college students, or continuation of unemployment benefits during (hopefully) the final days of the pandemic.

No, some real hope has arrived in the form of the Child Tax Credit, part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. As the New York Times reports, although it’s written “as an expansion of an existing tax credit, it is essentially a guaranteed income for families with children.” It’s calculated that 94 percent of families may receive up to $300 per month per child for a twelve-month period.

This is huge. The idea of a basic income — despite being espoused both though seminal points in America’s history and other countries across the world — is unfamiliar to most Americans. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the year before his assassination, “I’m now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” Additionally, this specific tax has parallels across the world, but most notably the United Kingdom and Germany. NYC mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, through his time as a presidential candidate, has repeatedly advocated for such a universal basic income (UBI). Additionally, Yang’s PAC, Humanity Forward, endorsed six candidates that won their primaries in the 2020 election cycle.

The actual efficacy of such direct payments has been debated frequently among economists, but in the communities that have actually run trials on programs like this, the effects are overwhelmingly positive. And, as the World Economic Forum writes, “Societal conflict… is on track to reach a boiling point without action. The payoff of social stability and overall wellbeing is tremendous, making an even more powerful argument for UBI.” Additionally, the increasingly unconventional Utah Sen. Mitt Romney has proposed even larger payments for parents than is offered in the American Rescue Plan. Unlike his plan, however, these benefits are extremely likely to be signed into law very soon.

Giving people direct payments, as shown by the overwhelming popularity and efficacy of COVID-19’s stimulus checks, makes the most sense to solve many of the problems wrought by the pandemic. Individuals, not necessarily the government, know where they need money: whether it be to cover the cost of rent, groceries, medications or even daycare. The wide-ranging effects of the pandemic require a flexible solution, and direct payments of straight cash could serve to fill that niche. 

Is basic income a silver bullet to end the pandemic and alleviate every single problem that Americans have faced? Of course not. However, it shows that our society is not, in fact, content with the fact that 26 percent of Black children or 36 percent of single moms live in poverty in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. 

I hope that this program will serve to show Americans that direct payments can help lift families out of poverty and give some breathing room at a time when families are drowning financially. The real hope, however, is that people warm to the idea of direct payments in general, and that our Congress can introduce bills to make this economic idea a long-lasting reality.

Economic injustice is something to which Americans are, unfortunately, all too familiar with. Hopefully these temporary cash payments will serve to bring a speedier end to the financial toll of the pandemic, all the while serving the greater goal of filling the needs of our neediest friends, neighbors, and strangers alike.

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