A national UBI would enable people to make a better...

A national UBI would enable people to make a better life for themselves, and create a more prosperous economy for everyone. Credit: Getty Images/Alan Schein Photography

Free money.

That dismissive phrase sums up the reaction of many people whose minds are closed to the idea of creating a Universal Basic Income program to give vulnerable workers some economic security.

The "free money" putdown is downright insensitive and even cruel in light of the widespread suffering caused by the economic collapse brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. An income guarantee throws a lifeline to those frantically trying to keep their heads above water.

But even after the public health crisis subsides and the economy rebounds, UBI not only would provide financial stability for people watching their jobs exported overseas or automated out of existence, it would also stimulate the economy by freeing would-be entrepreneurs to leave dead-end jobs and take the risk of starting a business. And it can create an opportunity to replace old welfare programs with a new approach that rewards work.

Think about it: In the 1800s, our nation's economy was mostly agricultural. Then came the Industrial Revolution. People left the land and migrated to cities to work in factories and offices.

The transition caused immense economic and social upheaval. Trade unions were formed to give workers a collective voice and unemployment insurance, workers compensation for workplace injuries, child labor laws and Social Security for the elderly were all established to provide shelter from the storm.

A new economic revolution is now upon us. Robots are rapidly replacing factory workers. One day soon, robots also will be delivering packages, laying bricks, hanging drywall, pouring cement, installing carpet, flipping burgers.

Driverless vehicles are coming. When they arrive, the millions of truck drivers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, and other Americans who drive for a living will have to find another line of work, or else go on welfare.

Those old welfare programs were constructed generations ago in response to the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars on them every year. Recipients have to be poor to get help and must stay poor to keep it. With UBI, in contrast, the more you work, the better off you are. You can climb the ladder and keep right on climbing.

No one can live on $1,000 a month. But the security of a basic income payment makes it possible to work for low wages and not be doomed to live in poverty. And for those longing to start their own business who are now stuck living paycheck to paycheck, UBI makes it possible to reach for that dream.

A national UBI would enable people to make a better life for themselves, and create a more prosperous economy for everyone.

In a single day during the pandemic, America's richest man, Jeff Bezos, got $13 billion richer. American households lost $6.5 trillion in March. UBI would tip the scales back, especially if it's paid for by restoring a system of taxation based on the ability to pay.

Barely a year ago, UBI was an obscure theory. Not anymore. Democrat Andrew Yang made it the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. In March, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah called for $1,000 payments to every adult American.

Legislation to establish UBI has been introduced in Congress and, in April, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said an income guarantee is "worthy of attention now" as the pandemic continues to throttle the economy.

She's right. It is worthy of more than attention. Its time has come.

Mike McCabe is executive director of Our Wisconsin Revolution ( ourwisconsinrev.com ) and author of "Unscrewing America: Hints and Hopes from the Heartland." This column was produced by the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.


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