Universal Basic Income

The COVID-19 pandemic created a watershed moment for cash assistance — and with it Universal Basic Income (UBI)

Political and public sentiments around cash assistance shifted rapidly as governments around the world scrambled to support its citizens.  1.3 billion people received cash in response to the pandemic, accounting for over 15% of the global population.  

UBI is also a natural follow on to our exploration of Capitalism and Inequality as an obvious redistributive mechanism.  It is also appealing as an intervention for addressing equality of opportunity issues.  

Universal Basic Income Essentials:

What is universal basic income?

Always has the following characteristics:

  • Cash (vs. in-kind)
  • Recurring (vs. one off)
  • Universal (vs. means tested)
  • Unconditional (vs. conditional on behaviors such as job seeking)
  • Given to an individual (vs. the household), with a smaller amount typically given per child

Variables for consideration in implementation:

  • Frequency of distribution: usually monthly, can be weekly or annually.  One time allocation known as universal basic capital
  • Dollar amount: country dependent,  objective is to fund basic needs for foods, housing, health. $1k is number used in the US + $500 per child, in Kenya its $22
  • Funding source: usually a variety of taxes (income, wealth, consumption, carbon, inheritance, etc.).  Can also be funded by state owned resources e.g. Alaska’s Permanent Fund

Additional policy question is what welfare programs get replaced / are offered alongside UBI:

  • UBI generally replaces programs that would be redundant e.g. SNAP in the US
  • Cash programs that are contributory, e.g. unemployment, generally remain untouched
  • Vast majority political theorists see UBI as a further expansion of the safety net, they concomitantly advocate for universal healthcare, public education, and affordable housing
  • UBI appeals to right leaning politicians as a replacement for other welfare programs altogether

Historical precedence

The case for UBI


  • Appropriate social response to the inherent insecurity of capitalism: addresses macro trends that create risk of social instability: inequality, job losses from automation; insulates citizens from economic shocks e.g. COVID-19
  • More efficient mechanism for administering welfare state >> less bureaucracy / cost to deliver services lower, $ gets redistributed to beneficiaries
  • Stimulates the economy through increased demand and entrepreneurship
  • Welfare maximizing / not paternalistic: doesn’t assume people should work, let’s them do what they think is best with the cash
  • Universality means there’s no stigma associated with receiving benefits (which often results in an under adoption of benefits)
  • No poverty traps bc don’t have a threshold where benefits disappear
  • Empowers women especially to leave abusive relationships where they are financially dependent
  • Enables Investment in non-wage earning activities that benefit society, e.g. caregiving, education and training
  • Civic benefits: reduced crime, increased civic participation
  • Well being benefits: e.g. less stress, can quantify physical and mental as well as subjective measures


  • Liberalism: if one values freedom, they should oppose conditions that force individuals to choose between survival and a life they do not want for themselves
  • Republicanism: conception of justice focused on absence of dominating control by some over others, UBI facilitates non-domination
  • Independentarianism: provides individuals the "freedom to say no” to abuses and domination by spouses or bosses
  • Social egalitarianism: freedom from domination and oppression
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