What is the distinction between universal basic income and guaranteed income? What are the theoretical and practical arguments for these policies? What experiments and evidence are underway in the United States today?
Universal basic income has gotten a lot of attention in the past five years. What is universal basic income, and why might it be a compelling component of a just society? How did the pandemic accelerate the possibility to adopting cash assistance in various forms?
Our guests for this episode are Natalie Foster and Dorian Warren, co-founders of the Economic Security Project which has spearheaded some tremendously impactful work around guaranteed income in the United States over the past few years.
In this episode, we do a deep dive on universal basic income and guaranteed income, including:
"Part of why I love the idea of guaranteed income is it's a way to recognize everyone's inherent dignity and contributions. We tend to attach dignity only to wage labor and work. What if we attach it to our personhood?" - Dorian Warren
[00:00:11] Jenny Stefanotti (JS): That's Dorian Warren (DW), Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the Economic Security Project. And this is the Becoming Denizen podcast. I'm your host and curator, Jenny Stefanotti, and I'm so thrilled to launch our podcast with this very first episode that explores universal basic income and guaranteed income. I think it's such an important topic. And this is such a special conversation with Natalie Foster (NF) and Dorian Warren. They are co-founders along with Facebook co-founder, Chris Hughes, of the Economic Security Project, which is doing some extraordinarily important and fascinating work in the U.S. around guaranteed income.
Natalie, in addition to co-founding the Economic Security Project, she's an utter superstar. She is an advisor to the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative. She co-founded and launched Peers.org which supports people who are in the sharing economy. Prior to that, she was CEO and co-founder of Rebuild the Dream, a platform for people-driven economic change with Van Jones.
Dorian Warren is also an unbelievable human. He's President of Community Change, a progressive scholar, organizer, and media personality who's worked to advance racial economic, and social justice for over two decades.
I've included at the top of this episode a quick but comprehensive overview of universal basic income. It's intended to give listeners a backdrop to get more out of the subsequent conversation with Natalie and Dorian. But if you want to jump straight into the conversation, it starts around the 11-minute mark.
And there are additional resources on our website, www.becomingdenizen.com, including a deep dive on universal basic income, which outlines our research. You can also sign up for our newsletter on our website where we bring our weekly podcast to your inbox alongside other relevant Denizen announcements. We're partnered with a lot of really incredible organizations such as the Economic Security Project. And so, we use our newsletter to tell you about their work as well.
I just want to make sure that everyone understands UBI first and foremost. So, what is it? Is it cash versus in-kind assistance. It is recurring versus one-off. And in the UBI case, it is universal versus means-tested. I.E., it goes to everyone versus some subset of the population based on some criteria. And it is unconditional. I.E., you don't have to do something in order to get it.
There have been other cash transfer programs around the world where, for example, if you send your kids to school or you do certain health measures, you get it. But in this case, you don't have to do anything to get it. And critically, it is given to the individual versus a household.
And there are really important and interesting reasons why this is compelling. With respect to it being unconditional, it separates the right to income from any sort of an obligation to work or do anything. There's a sort of underlying philosophical belief that people just have a right to a certain standard of living and they don't have to engage in any behaviors in order to get that.
And that also really circumvents a key issue in development and in assistance and welfare that is paternalism. An assumption that you should be behaving in certain ways for society. And that really underpins notions of freedom. But also, really critical, because it is universal, it circumvents stigma issues. Because sometimes when things require you to, for example, have an income below a certain amount, people just don't take advantage of those programs because of the stigma.
When you think about variables for putting these kinds of policies in place, things to consider is what is the funding source? Most UBI proposals have it funded from a variety of taxes, including income tax, or wealth tax, or consumption tax, financial tax, transaction taxes, or carbon taxes, or some combination of those things.
Another consideration for policy is what's the dollar amount? A thousand dollars a month per person is the standard thing that we've seen in a lot of places in the U.S. Or five hundred dollars per child. How is it distributed in terms of frequency? Is it monthly? Or is it weekly? Or is it annually. Usually, we see it monthly.
And then there's a question of what other welfare programs does it replace? It generally replaces programs that would make it redundant. But often other cash programs that are contributory, like unemployment, remain intact. And so, this is part of the debate around various political theoretical positioning that then informs what the policy looks like.
There's a lot of very strong arguments for UBI with respect to just practical concerns and outcomes. And I'll get to them in a moment. But I think it's first and foremost important to understand the case for UBI from a political theory point of view. There's a really exceptional paper that I would encourage anyone to read from The Stanford Basic Income Lab around this. It really gets into these theoretical arguments for UBI.
Because we're asking this question at Denizen around what does a fundamentally just society look like? And there are four different theoretical cases for that. One is from a liberal egalitarian point of view, which is that if one really values freedom for all, they therefore should oppose conditions that force individuals to choose between survival and a life that they don't want for themselves.
The only work that is available is grueling work where you can barely make ends meet. And we see this around the U.S. with the current minimum wage, right? Then a truly free society would make it possible that people did not have to make those types of choices. And so, in order to not encroach on the freedom of the funding source in that scheme, UBI would be generated from a share of undeserved gifts and bequests.
And then another argument is from the angle of Republicanism, which is an alternative defensive UBI on the grounds of non-denomination. The Republican concept of justice is more relational than a libertarian one. But it focuses on the presence or absence of dominating control by some over others, including the state. This is following the tradition of Rousseau. Republicans want to build a society where no one is too poor to be bought. And no one is rich enough to enslave others. Insofar as UBI can realistically protect people from the dominating control of others by ensuring an income floor, it's a promising policy on Republican grounds.
A third angle from a theoretical perspective is Independarianism, which is a close cousin of republicanism, and it leads to a defense of UBI of providing individuals the freedom to say no to abuses and domination by spouses or bosses, right? Also, UBI, if you look at the fact that the care economy is something that is not compensated, you also have issues of women being dominated by their spouses because they are the ones providing income for the family. It's a very important intervention from a feminist perspective, which Dorian makes note of in the conversation that we'll get to in just a moment.
A fourth theoretical argument is social egalitarianism. They believe a just society is one in which people are free from domination and oppression. And so, this gets into the traditions of Martin Luther King. Central to this conceptualization are the notions of equal social standing, equal status, equal respect, and equal political power.
Now note from a social egalitarian perspective, you get into issues with guaranteed income versus UBI. Because there's just not equal associated with the fact that there's stigma associated with the criteria for that intervention. So those are the theoretical arguments for this. And I think it's really important to start there. Because then you get into the practical reasons like, "So, why did this become something that we were looking at much more robustly in the U.S. in the last bunch of years?" It actually came from a lot of Silicon Valley. Seeing the structural changes to the economy with automation and believing that UBI would be something that could address rising inequality and job loss.
And frankly, I find this rationale wholly unconvincing and unsettling, because it's an argument that we are okay with inequality so long as we provide UBI. And I frankly have an issue with an economy structurally that leads to those sorts of outcomes.
There are also practical arguments from a macro perspective around just the nature of capitalism being fragile because it's optimizing for a single variable. There are also arguments that it stimulates the economy through increased entrepreneurship and increased demand. It doesn't distort markets in the way that other forms of welfare do.
Really, critically, it's also more efficient and less problematic as a mechanism for administering the welfare state. It's not paternalistic as I mentioned before. It doesn't assume that these are the things that you should do for yourself. But you also get rid of the extraordinary bureaucratic costs associated with both determining if you are eligible for the thing, as well as for in-kind assistance, delivering that kind of in-kind assistance.
All of the operational capacity that would be needed to deliver, for example, education or health-related interventions versus just giving people cash and allowing the market to deliver those needs and meet those needs for the individuals. It also addresses poverty traps associated with the traditional welfare state. And as I mentioned before, stigma. And then there's just all these kind of incredible macroeconomic spillovers, positive externalities, such as a reduction in crime, an increase in civic participation. And then there's a set of reasons at the micro level that it's very convincing. Better well-being, physical, mental, and subjective measures of well-being. We'll talk about this in the conversation about what they were seeing from the experiments they were doing. Better financial decision-making. Improved dynamics within the family. The ability to reallocate time towards caregiving, right?
Now you don't have to work. You can stay home and take care of your kids. If we're a society that values these things, there's a strong case for UBI from that perspective. And also, just these – as I mentioned before, the freedom and empowerment of women, reduce dependence. The ability of them to leave abusive situations where they would otherwise be beholden to their spouses for financial security.
And then another couple quick things and then we'll get into the conversation. There are different arguments for this in low versus high-income countries. Here we're talking about the U.S. where there's an argument around addressing inequality, job loss with automation, government efficiencies, all the things that I just mentioned. But in low-income countries, it's quite fascinating to think about this as an alternative model for development, which is more efficient, more dignified, and doesn't create poverty traps.
And so, with that, let's get into the conversation with Natalie and Dorian.
[00:10:48] JS: I am convinced that UBI is an extraordinarily important component of the future that we seek to create and really think that you two are doing some of the most important work in the U.S., hence the most important work in the world relating to moving in this direction. It's really an honor to host you to have this conversation.
The big distinction between universal is it's for everybody, versus guaranteed. And how do you pick them, right? Because with guaranteed income, there's a stigma associated with it. This was the issue. This was the thing that's really compelling about UBI versus guaranteed income. There's a stigma associated with receiving those payments. But with guaranteed income, you still have to select someone. Maybe we can talk a little bit about guaranteed income versus UBI from that perspective.
[00:11:37] NF: Yeah, totally. Let me kick it off and then we'll see if Dorian wants to weigh in. Here's the thing. We were in a world – we are in a world where so many families cannot pull together $400 in an emergency. Nearly 40% of Americans cannot do that. If they run a stop sign and get a $400 ticket, that could be a game changer for their finances in a bad way. That could be very problematic.
We live in a world where women make cents on the dollar to their white male counterparts. And women of color make even less cents on the dollar to their white male counterparts.
And we live in a world of worse than 1920 levels of disparities between the Have and the Have-nots. We live in a world where work has become more and more fissured. Meaning more and more people have low-wage work where the hours change week to week and income volatility is a thing. You might have a job, but you don't know week to week what that paycheck will be, which means it's very hard to know you can certainly put food on the table and pay rent.
And it's that backdrop that we started advocating for a guaranteed income. And it's that backdrop where the universal basic income conversation started, I think, in earnest, five, six years ago. And there was one strain of it that said this is a thing that we should predicate on a future concern about the impacts of technology on the workforce, about automation, AI, the role it will have in eliminating jobs.
And part of what the Economic Security Project did was – actually, you don't need to predicate this on a future concern. You just need to look at the here and now at the story I just told of today's economy. And know that it's gotten even worse during the pandemic. And that alone is an argument for a guaranteed income in America. That alongside wages, which need to go up, and alongside better protections, benefits, union jobs, we also should have a guaranteed income, which would ensure that no matter what happens, people can count on income in their lives each month. And then the pandemic hit, and it became clear that that was true across the board. And that that was possible to do.
The American government, over the last two years, rolled out three rounds of stimulus checks within just weeks. People were able to receive cash aid. Because cash is the currency of urgency. And it became clear that that is an important pandemic response.
And now we're shifting into “How do we build back better?” after this crisis. And the thing we know is that we are in an era of crises and we need to build back better with policies that ensure resilience in people's lives, economic resilience. And a guaranteed income is one of those things, right? It says no matter what happens each month, there's a check that comes in the door, whether forest fires are raging through California, or droughts, or freezes, or viruses, whatever – or coming automation and impacts on the workforce. All of those things are much more easily weathered by people if they have economic resilience. And that's what a guaranteed income offers.
And the big difference is that a guaranteed income really is aimed at families who need it the most. It is a political decision as to where you cut that off. Right now, with the child tax credit, which we'll get into in a second, which is a guaranteed income for families with children. The cutoff is four hundred thousand dollars. 92% of American parents are receiving the child tax credit check. Basically, every parent in America is receiving it. And so, it's a guaranteed income for families. It's not universal. But it's guaranteed. And those parents can count on it each month.
[00:15:34] JS: Yeah. And it's interesting to think about this sort of – again, the impetus of the UBI conversation originally was, "Wow! We just got handed this massive natural experiment in cash transfers with the pandemic," right? And then I really appreciate how you're doing work also around the Child Tax Credit, which is a different way of just getting cash into people's hands, right? And sort of paving the way towards that, towards universal basic income.
Well, Dorian, why don't you add to that?
[00:16:03] DW: I mean, yeah, I wanted to just add on to everything Natalie said by doing a little history in two minutes or less. I came to the idea of guaranteed income, and it's almost like everyone says this now. But I actually came to it from Dr. King and the Black Panther Party.
And there was a conversation in this country 50 years ago and more around guaranteed income. And it was the big idea. I think people have different notions of the policy design questions. But let me just share with you quickly the passage exactly of how I came to this idea. People talk about Dr. King. But let me give you the receipts a little bit.
[00:16:43] JS: This is his last book, right?
[00:16:43] DW: It's his final book, Chaos or Community? Where Do We Go From Here? And he wrote that, "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."
So, let's pause on that for a second. Because he's basically saying, one, we can abolish poverty. Two, he was a poverty abolitionist. We hear a lot of talk these days around abolition and we don't really hear about poverty. I'm a poverty abolitionist, by the way.
And what's important about this context of King writing in '67 is – Fun fact. When Lyndon Baines Johnson launched the “war on poverty" in 1964, the idea, and the aspiration, and the hope, the goal was to end absolute poverty as we knew it in America by the bicentennial of 1976.
When have we ever – and the recent memory – and I appreciate President Biden. I appreciate President Obama. But in terms of the moonshot goal, we're going to abolish poverty by bicentennial. Think about that for a minute. That was the conversation. This is the conversation that's happening in the mid-60s.
Dr. King comes to this idea, the Black Panther Party. I think someone independently came to this idea around a guaranteed income. It is actually there in the 10-point platform. And I think if you dig a little deeper, there are some other folks that we tend to ignore that were also on this idea.
I want to name-check the National Welfare Rights Organization. This was an organization of poor Southern black women led by this incredible leader named Johnny Tillman who were arguing for guaranteed income. And that's the language they use. They're arguing for guaranteed income in the early 60s, and I think pushed, frankly, Dr. King and some of the other male leaders on this question. Because they were struggling – and think about this. This is before voting rights. This is before the Voting Rights of '65. This is under a Jim Crow authoritarian state.
And so, many of these mothers from, yes, Mississippi. We can come back to that point. Mississippi, Alabama. Many in this deep south, who by the way couldn't even get access to what we understood as welfare at the time. Because southern states, because they were Jim Crow states, tried their best to exclude black women from even accessing what was considered welfare.
There was this sense of resistance to paternalism of the AFDC, which was the program at the time, this bold idea that frankly was really about dignity, and humanity, and sustainability, right?
Part of why I love the idea of guaranteed income is it's a way to recognize everyone's inherent dignity and contributions. We tend to attach dignity only to wage labor and work.
[00:19:22] JS: Exactly.
[00:19:24] DW: What if we attach it to our personhood, right? That's what those women were teaching us. The last thing I'll say is I'd like to mention National Welfare Rights Organization, because is another line of argument around whether it's UBI or guaranteed income that I think is a very feminist argument. And that is the notion of how we have treated care work in this country from the founding.
Care work is treated as unpaid labor. It is devalued primarily because of who does that work. If you think of any childcare provider or teacher right now, they're in the fight of their lives trying to win federal legislation to create a national childcare system for the first time, which by the way 50 years ago Nixon vetoed. So, here we are 50 years later trying to win some kind of a universal childcare system.
The punch line here though is if you think about care work, taking care of young children, taking care of the elderly or people with disabilities, that is such vital work that we have taken for granted until basically a couple of years ago. And so, I think there's also a feminist edge to this argument around guaranteed income in terms of let's just compensate the millions of women in this country that do unpaid labor at home and out in the rest of the world. That's another argument and another track we could go down in terms of UBI or guaranteed income.
[00:20:42] JS: For sure. In addition, Dorian, to the Martin Luther King history that you mentioned, there's also Buckminster Fuller. He saw the way that the economy is going in technology, and he celebrated that. And he said that you should get a stipend and it would pay for itself with one person who came up with an innovative idea that changed humanity. Yeah, there's a lot of historical arguments. Even Milton Friedman, who had the Earned Income Tax Credit.
The other thing that I read was Charles Eisenstein. And he had some really interesting things to say about this that raises some of the philosophical questions I'm holding. Because you have a firm that creates some value in society, right? But how much value should you extract for yourself? And he talks about just the cultural and natural inheritance that we all have. The gifts that we've all received. If that’s what's really creating the majority of the value, it provides a case for UBI. Does that make sense?
[00:21:39] DW: Mm-hmm. That's related to – I've been reading these two books in tandem. Manuel Pastor and Chris Benner have a book out called Solidarity Economics. And then of course there's Heather McGhee's recent book, The Sum of Us. They both actually talk about this notion of solidarity.
And Heather actually talks about this notion of a solidarity dividend. Now, for those of you that are UBI or guaranteed income nerds, you probably know about the Alaska dividend. Similar concept. And the idea of a solidarity dividend is, essentially, we all create value collectively in this country. And some people benefit more than others. And so, what would it mean to provide public goods to all, right?
Think clean air, or clean water, or better funded schools. And if you think of it, I'm going to bring in the feminist argument a little bit here. If you bring in care, and think about care as a collective act. In that sense, there is a lot of wealth being generated. People who are either being paid nothing or very low.
And so, the idea of the solidarity dividend is to say, actually, we can all – there is an abundance of resources. We all help to create the value of those public resources. And so, we should all get a dividend, because we all need to – all of our fates are linked together. That's really what solidarity means.
Whether it's – as Natalie mentioned earlier, we have an experiment in the last several months of the equivalent of a guaranteed income for kids and families. Whether it's that, or guaranteed income, or UBI, I love this idea of a solidarity dividend that we are all deserving of being able, frankly, to survive in this country based on the value that we all collectively create.
[00:23:22] JS: Are you guys familiar with Riane Eisler's work?
[00:23:24] NF: Yeah, a bit.
[00:23:24] JS: Yeah. She's done a lot of work in trying to quantify the caring economy. That's not accounted for, but is actually as big as GDP in some countries, right? To your point around the feminist angle for this as well. Now, I love that with respect to the solidarity. I mean, you can come at this from so many angles, and it just makes so much sense, right? And then we turn to, "Okay. So, we're bought into it. How do we actually make this real now?" And I think this is just such a moment, right? Or it has been such a moment with the pandemic. And you guys are doing such important work. How do we actually make policy happen? And you're doing such exciting work to build that evidence base. And that's what I just wanted to also talk about today.
First thing that you did, which was so seminal and so critical, was funding the experiment with Michael Tubbs in Stockton. Why don't we talk a little bit about that and what the outcomes were?
[00:24:16] NF: Sure. Dorian, and Chris, and myself and our team, in the beginning, we commissioned a lot of research. Went to Alaska actually. Looked at the dividend Dorian mentioned earlier, the permanent fund dividend that Alaskans received. We looked at a bunch of different international schemes. You mentioned GiveDirectly is still doing awesome work looking at guaranteed income across the world.
And we commissioned white papers. We looked at the macroeconomic impacts of it and realized, this idea needs to live somewhere in the world. It needs to move off of paper and into a city. And Michael Tubbs and I sat next to each other at a conference in downtown San Francisco, and we were actively in conversation with several cities at the time. And he was so clearly the person who should usher this idea into the world from a political perspective.
We had a great conversation. And we spent weeks then building together – months really building together and announced the first modern mayor-led pilot in Stockton, California. I think almost four years ago at this point. And it ran for two years. 125 families received $500 a month with no strings attached. It ran right up until the pandemic.
And so, the data is now coming out from the first year. As soon, we'll have data from the second year. But all of it is pre-pandemic. And in some ways, which I will get to in a second, we actually have a national experiment now with the Child Tax Credit that every parent is receiving that I think really scales up what was happening in Stockton.
But we learned a couple of things. One is that people are far less stressed when they have $500 a month coming in the door alongside their wages and any other incomes that they have that they can count on that can be used for different things.
We know from the receipts that money goes to paying down bills. That it goes to buying groceries, purchasing goods that are needed, that sort of thing. What doesn't show up on those receipts are that people feel less stressed. They have room to breathe was a phrase that we hear from recipients over and over again, "I feel like I have room to breathe."
Anecdotally, people went off medicine. People have been carrying around panic attack medicine never knowing when a panic attack might come just given the financial stress that they were under. And so, I think that's one very important part is the well-being aspect.
[00:26:52] JS: Which is huge. Which is huge. Right. Anxiety, depression, as well as obesity, diabetes it’s all related to this stress.
[00:27:06] NF: That's right. That's right. I think we're just scratching the surface. But it is noteworthy because there were a number of experiments done in the 70s around the time that Dorian was sort of reminiscing when President Nixon was looking at doing something like this with Milton Friedman. And we were very focused on the labor force, the workforce impacts. Like, labor numbers, wage number, increase in wages. Very – of course, money, frankly. And not humans. And I think that's a big shift we made with the Stockton demonstration. One is that people were less stressed.
The second is not obvious. And it was that people actually found work at 50% the rate of the control group when they received a guaranteed income. People found full-time work after receiving a guaranteed income at double the rate. And what they found is that people had a chance to take a risk on themselves. They could afford to buy the suits. They could afford to take time off and go up to the interview for a managerial job that they might have a low chance at getting, but they could take that risk because of the guaranteed income.
And that was, I think, a very important finding as we move into a world where cash becomes a part of our standard social policy and a part of the way we build back better. We hear these politicians coming out of the woodwork saying, "But people won't work." And the proof I think is in the pudding in Stockton that, in fact, people will continue to work. They'll just have a better say over what type of work they do.
[00:28:42] DW: Let me set a couple other points to what Natalie just said, Jenny. We know from the data and the evidence how people have spent the money from Stockton, the Stockton pilot. We know a little something as well in this last year for those parents, and as many of you are probably listening, who receive the Child Tax Credit. We also have a sense from the Census pulse survey data on how people have spent that either $250, $300 a month per child.
And we know that it's paying for basic necessities and paying off debt in many cases. And I just want to – because I'm obsessed with this this week. So, I just have to make this really real. You probably have heard of the term food insecurity. You may not have heard of the term water insecurity. Meaning people in this country that do not have access to clean and safe water.
The reason why I raise this, is because this is kind of a debt conversation. I'm from the Midwest. I'm from Chicago. Mostly poor, mostly black residents in the city of Chicago are something like $421 million in water debt, which is leading to water shutoffs. If you go a state or two over, to Michigan and Detroit, there's a debt collection policy where the city shuts off water to anyone who falls behind by $150 dollars. $150 of your water bill.
And since the start of the pandemic, they have shut off water in something like 3,000 homes. Now think about that for a second. You don't have $150, that means you cannot flush your toilet. You can't get rid of waste in your home. You can't cook. You can't do everyday things we take for granted. How are you going to bathe or shower to go to work if you don't have water? This is the richest country in the history of human civilization. And people are in water debt because they don't have $150? That seems absolutely absurd and outrageous to me.
And I just think, based on what we know with the data, a lot of people are – a lot of low-income and working-class folks are using versions of UBI or guaranteed income to pay off some of these debts. It's for basic things for what should be a fundamental human right in this country. That's my little soapbox on water and the relationship of UBI/guaranteed income to water in particular.
[00:31:03] JS: I appreciate that. The evidence from Stockton has lead you to establish a separate organization, Mayors for Guaranteed Income. I know that you have that initial funding from Jack Dorsey of $15 million. Tell me how that's going. Because I know Tubbs is very involved in that. Because this is just again really critical to establish an evidence base to actually do this. Because the spillover effects are profound in literally every direction.
[00:31:27] NF: Yeah, it's led by Mayor Michael Tubbs. The mayors themselves are leading. And a couple of weeks ago, Dorian's hometown of Chicago announced a big pilot, one of the largest in the country, on the same day that LA announced its largest pilot in the country. One of them is serving more families. And one of them just has an overall larger price tag. They both get to claim that credit. And that is a race to the top.
[00:31:52] JS: That's amazing.
[00:31:53] DW: That is a race where there are only winners. And that's gone from the three-million-dollar pilot in Stockton to now $24 to $35 million pilots. Much of that is public dollars in these cities demonstrating this idea. And Dorian, I'm just really moved by the water and security piece too. And I hope that we could pull that out in some of these cities like even in Chicago.
[00:32:16] DW: In Chicago, for sure.
[00:32:17] NF: Yeah. And what's cool, these are just pilots that the mayors themselves are leading. There are also probably 50 to 75 pilots led by community groups around the country that have sprung up in the last several years. Really following in the footsteps of Aisha Nyandoro in Jackson, Mississippi who runs the Magnolia Mother's Trust. Now she is now running the longest tenure – the longest running guaranteed income pilot. She's going to be on her third or fourth cohort of mothers where she gives a thousand dollars a month with no strings attached to black mothers living in Jackson. And she is just doing an amazing job of storytelling as well and really working with a lot of these recipients of the guaranteed income to tell their own story of what it's meant in their lives.
And I would like to quickly tell a story that stuck with me. I visited Jackson a year ago, and it reminds me a lot of what you were saying, Dorian, about the water debt. I got to sit down across from a mom who had started receiving the basic income. She's probably three or four months in. And she had long had this dream of being a phlebotomist, which I believe is like blood work, right? It is a healthcare job that would be a stable job for her. And she had started school for phlebotomy and was about a hundred and fifty dollars in debt to her community college and didn't have that. There was no way she could pull that together. And that meant she couldn't continue on with classes. For two years, she was not allowed to re-enroll nor could she continue her class because she didn't have that $150.
And so, the first check she got from Magnolia Mother's Trust, $1000, she took that $150 and went down to the Community College, paid off the debt, re-enrolled in phlebotomy classes and now has her degree in – my understanding, has a job doing exactly what she'd long wanted to do.
And it's just that kind of thing holds back people and their dreams, their dreams for themselves, for their children, for their families all over the place in this country. And we can solve it. With one stroke of a pen, we could solve that problem.
[00:34:31] JS: This is really exciting. You said there was some public funding for some of these pilots that are happening at the local level? Or at the city level?
[00:34:37] NF: Yes. Several of them were using American Rescue Plan dollars, which sent a lot of money to counties and cities to deal with a set of problems. And some of them are saying, "You know what? I think the best use of these dollars is to put it directly into the hands of people in my city and state. That's what we're going to do.
[00:34:57] JS: And do you feel like, across the board, MGI is running the experiments to continue to build on the evidence that the original Stockton experiment created?
[00:35:07] NF: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, another really exciting development just in terms of how much this ecosystem has grown is that the researchers in Stockton have established an academic center at the University of Pennsylvania called the Center for Guaranteed Income Studies. And it will be overseeing the research on a number of these pilots across the whole country. We'll have data that is similar in nature from a whole bunch of these very different cities who frankly are running or running pilots in pretty different ways too. And I'm just so excited about that and what they'll find.
[00:35:41] JS: Wow! Look what you started.
[00:35:42] NF: Well, you know, here's the thing, if you've been in social change work long enough you know that it takes a lot of work to make something not just a moment, a passing fad. A thing we all talk about for a few months and then we move on. It takes infrastructure. It takes behind-the-scenes work. It takes networks and connecting. It takes policy development and white papers. And then, honestly, it takes something like a pandemic to ensure that there is a political opening that is big enough for an idea like guaranteed income. And that was the big shift.
[00:36:17] JS: It's remarkable. I also really point to this often as an example of where philanthropic dollars really made a difference to build up that evidence base to then convince policymakers to put public funding into this type of thing.
[00:36:29] NF: Yeah, exactly. I think that we really considered ourselves R&D money. I had encouraged this to some of the early foundations and major donors who were taking risks with us to invest in some of these demonstrations and some of these different champions of the idea. We said consider ourselves research and development to sort of make the case for this policy to demonstrate what's possible. But only policy can scale it. Only the government can actually scale this. There's no scenario where we have enough pilots and philanthropy goes big enough to where philanthropy can create a guaranteed income in America. That's not possible.
But with the stroke of a pen in the American Rescue Plan, in March of this year, Joe Biden ensured that every parent in America has a guaranteed income for families with children. And that is just the perfect example of what we've been saying, from pilots to policy, is how we get this done.
[00:37:25] JS: Well, look, foundations are always looking for leverage. So, there you go. Do you feel like this is just off to the races? What do you feel like there are impediments? Because it feels like mayors are standing up left, right, and center for this. What is your sense of the current landscape?
[00:37:39] DW: I think there are a couple different kinds of impediments, let's call it that. I think you should pick your time frame. There is a cultural impediment about how we see deservingness or deservedness in this country. And you can't go there without talking about notions of race, notions of gender, notions of class, and who's deserving?
I mean, let's talk about it. Senator Manchin, he craps on poor white people in this state and thinks that they're going to use free money to buy drugs, right? Just to be clear, it's not like he loves black women either. But he also kind of craps on poor white folks in West Virginia who are struggling, just to be really, really clear. Because why? He doesn't see them as deserving.
And so, for decades, if not centuries, we have had very strong cultural notions of who is deserving of government support and who is not deserving? And that's related to notions about who belongs in this country and who does not belong. And therefore, why would I be in solidarity with you if you look a different way or have different beliefs? Why would I be using my tax dollars for you to get money? That's the whole cultural milieu in which we find ourselves. That's one impediment. And so, what's the narratives in culture change strategy?
[00:38:55] JS: Tell me what yours is. Because this is a whole – this is literally one of those pillars of the Denizen inquiry, yeah.
[00:39:00] DW: Let's come back to that, because we have some experiments and some learnings from that. That's one impediment. And then there is – I should have backed up and just started like the main impediment to any significant social change is power. It's power. It's people that hold power don't want to share. They don't want others to hold power, right?
One element here then under, if you think about it from a power perspective, is narrative power and cultural power. What narratives and stories are we telling about who is deserving and who was not in this country? Then there's what you might think of as the policy, the dimension of policy power in terms of what's happening where I live right now in Washington, D.C. with pending legislation? And there's all sorts of other ways you can think about power in terms of the role of the filibuster, and keeping party coalitions together, and who are politicians responding to? Are they responding to their voters? Are they responding to their donors? Are they responding to other kinds of interests? We could have a whole conversation about just the political power aspect of this as an impediment.
And then last but not least, I do think there's the people power element. And that relates to the other, because one of the things we learned early on in Stockton, we've learned from Aisha in Mississippi, is the storytelling of people who are directly benefiting from being able to tell their own stories in a way that shifts narratives and culture. That's a form of power.
And so, if we listen carefully and don't go in with our prejudicial assumptions, like, "Oh, those people are just going to buy alcohol and drugs." By the way, if people are spending money on alcohol and drugs, so what? Because that's called freedom. It's either you believe in freedom or you don't. Either you're a paternalist and you want to direct how people spend their money? Because you disapprove and happy y'all – probably everybody here has done some kind of drug in their life, I guarantee.
I do think we have to do storytelling from people directly affected. But we also need the data, and the evidence, and the science and expertise to make all the other arguments, right? The economic arguments, and the moral arguments and the political arguments. There's just a lot.
And I can imagine, last thing I'll say on this, for all the folks in these different pilot places and cities who are beneficiaries, what you're basically doing is also building a long-term constituency in favor of a guaranteed income or UBI policy. If you think of it similar to Social Security, it's not like there was super majority support for Social Security in 1935. Guess what? Social Security, there have been some advocates who have been advocating for it years before. And what happened? A crisis, not a pandemic, but a great depression.
And the temperature changed. There was political climate change, so to speak, right? And we got Social Security. But it took decades to build up the constituency that would be willing to advocate for it and defend it, which is why for those of you of a certain age, you might remember in the 80s and 90s this notion that Social Security was a third rail of politics, yet you can never touch it. Because this is what political scientists call policy feedback. You create a policy, and the policy itself creates constituencies that would be willing to defend the program or fight for the program. That's what you have in Social Security.
And I suspect by 2030 in this country, you're going to have all these people who have experienced, whether it's a child tax credit this year, whether it's guaranteed income pilot in Chicago, or LA, or Stockton, or Jackson, people would have experienced this program and they'll have a story to tell of how it changed their lives.
It's an interesting political science question about will these pilots really start to shift people's thinking and actually motivate people to say, "You know what? I actually really think everybody should have this policy in some way. And yeah, let's go fight for it."
[00:42:55] JS: Super interesting, right? Because you need the evidence base for the technocrats. And you need the story for cultural change, right? But that's really, really interesting what you just said about how to create this reinforcing feedback loop, right? Because it is often political sentiment that precedes policy change, right? To your point earlier about what are the policy makers beholden to, right? Yeah, I mean, you certainly need the a complex systems level strategy to realize these sort of outcomes. But you're doing such fascinating stuff.
Natalie, do you want to add to that?
[00:43:29] NF: Well, I think basic behavioral economics also says it's way harder to take something away when you give people something. And so, that means we are in the midst of the hardest part, which is making the case for the guaranteed income for families with children, which is the Child Tax Credit, which is the centerpiece of the Build Back Better agenda. So clearly we need investments in human infrastructure. What good is a bridge if I can't get to work because no one will watch my kids? We need human infrastructure and we need physical infrastructure.
And I am very hopeful that if we can get this over the finish line, that it will just be a one-year extension of essentially a guaranteed income in America. But that will mean, next year, it's really hard to take it away. And that's what I'm hoping we'll see.
[00:44:14] JS: Well, presumably, there's also a heterogeneity for who receives the income across all these pilots. Or is it mostly just about income?
[00:44:21] NF: Most are focused on, yeah, income. So, in Stockton, we looked at census tracts where families made median income in Stockton or below. And we randomly selected the recipients from those census tracts.
One of the interesting things we're seeing with some new pilots is that they're focused on different communities that they want to center, different vulnerable communities that they want to center in their pilots. One out of Chicago I spoke with, the head of the organization called EAT in Chicago. His name is Richard Wallace. And he's running a guaranteed income pilot looking at people who are formerly incarcerated and enrolling them in a guaranteed income program and looking at sort of what changes in their lives. And people who are often locked out of the formal job market and have to turn to the informal economy. Meaning then, they're locked out of so many social benefits, right? That we only run through employment in the United States. Anyway, he has an incredible analysis around his pilot.
And there are others that are looking at mothers in Marin out here in the Bay Area. The Marin Community Foundation is running a pilot in Marin City, historically black city in Marin County. And they're running their pilot for mothers of color. It was after a long period of talking to moms in Marin City asking them what they needed where cash became the resounding answer to the question, "What do you need?" They've launched a program in Marin City focused on Mothers. And there are a lot more like that.
[00:45:55] JS: That's interesting too when you're looking at philanthropic capital and public funding, right? Those different angles for different constituents can also allow for access to that.
[00:46:04] NF: Yeah, I think that's exactly right.
[00:46:06] JS: That makes a ton of sense. What are you excited about?
[00:46:10] NF: Yeah. What are you excited about, Dorian? You first.
[00:46:13] DW: You know, there's a book by one of my favorite authors, The Chicago and Studs Terkel, who I think was the master at oral histories of the 20th century. And he has this book called Hope Dies Last. I take that to mean that, for me at least, I'm always hopeful even in the midst of darkness. And it's not lost on me. Okay, we are – I just have to say this. 40 years ago, Ronald Reagan took office this year. And basically – and took office using a myth and a narrative around the welfare queen, which was punitive, which was about deservedness and belonging. And it was used to divide us and to demonize the role of government.
It's been 25 years this year since so-called welfare reforms signed into law passed by Congress with Democratic support. Signed into law by a Democratic president that was punitive. That said, "Oh, there's a hundred different kinds of strings attached if we're going to give cash to poor people."
And then I'll just say, like, five years ago, you could not have told me we would be having this conversation the way we're having it right now. You cannot have told me five years ago, when we started the Economic Security Project, that guaranteed income and UBI would be the topic of conversation, that there'd be someone who'd run for president on a platform of UBI. That the government would give out bucket loads of cash in the midst of a pandemic that it would say for the first time even if it's temporary, "Hey, parents, we value child rearing and supporting healthy children and child development. So, we're going to give you $250, $300 a month." I would have not believed you five years ago.
When it comes to social change and social impact, I think what's the phrase that is often used? Politics is ideally the art of the possible. I think we have to always stay hopeful in the midst of the cynicism, which is very easy and very seductive. And I live in D.C. So, I'm super cynical about what's happening right now. But you got to stay hopeful because, wow, Natalie, so much has changed in the last five years alone around this notion of cash. And could we actually make this work?
I'm reminded by arguments over 100 years ago when we were trying to ban child labor in this country. The opposition to that was, "Oh, the sky will fall. Children need to work. We need –" There's just so many – if you just go look at the history of debates about child labor and trying to ban out labor, which we didn't do until 1938, you see similar arguments that you see by the way around discussions of the minimum wage, right? When the Fight for 15 launched in 2012, a whole bunch of economists were like, "Oh, my God, the sky will fall. You cannot raise wages from $7.25 to $15 an hour." And then a whole bunch of places did it. Similar to what we've done in Stockton and some other places with pilots, Seattle, Sea-Tac, and then San Francisco. And then all of a sudden, cities started passing $15 minimum wage. And guess what? The sky didn't fall.
I just say that I'm so hopeful about this work. And we have to keep pushing as hard as we can and being as bold as we can, frankly. Like, time is running out when I think of the existential climate crisis. And so, what can we do in the time that we have on this planet to at least leave it not just a little bit better, but transformationally better for those coming behind us? I'm just super hopeful at this moment as – we're not out of the pandemic yet, y'all. We have threats on the existential nature of our democracy. We have a rise in political violence. There's just like a lot of things to be really dark about. And actually, I see a lot of light at the same time. That's sort of the contradiction of what it means maybe to be an American at this moment.
[00:49:58] NF: And I think that is so well said, the contradictions of being alive in America at this moment. Thank you, Dorian, for that.
I think one of the things I'm tracking that I find really interesting and inspiring right now is the rise in worker agency we're seeing across the country, whether it'd be this increase in strike activity that different unionized workforces are taking on really where they're demanding higher pay. More staffing, so their hours aren't as long. Or the combination of sort of all the factors under the great resignation where people are resigning and saying, "I don't want to do this anymore. It does not pay enough. The job isn't good enough. It's not worth being away from my family for."
And I have a hunch that a lot of this activity is happening right now and probably because we've all just had a great reckoning with what's really important in our lives. But also, because people have had more cash in their pockets over the last two years from everything from the stimulus checks to the pandemic unemployment insurance, and PPP, which people experienced as cash to the current child tax credits. People are able to build a bit more of a nest egg. And I think that means that they have the right to say no.
You talked earlier about the freedom to say no, the freedom to say yes. That everyone deserves that agency. And I have a hunch that that's what we're seeing right now. And so, I think the idea that workers across this country, low-wage workers in particular, feel like they have more agency and can exercise that in our lives is really inspiring to me. And certainly, it causes complications across the economy. I'm very well aware of that.
But I also see wages starting to rise in order for people to hire. And that has long been needed in this country as Dorian just laid out with the long fight for 15. I am hoping that we'll continue to see more of that race to the top.
[00:52:01] JS: One of the things I appreciate so much about UBI is that it creates a floor so that people just won't take those jobs. And it creates a guard rail against the more problematic outcomes of the incentives of capitalism. But obviously, there's so many more pieces to the puzzle, and that's what we talk about in this conversation. I'm wholly unsatisfied with UBI as an answer to an economy that fundamentally drives inequality as a way to placate the masses, right?
What we talk about here is really what does that structural change look like? But I do believe per the theoretical conversation that we had earlier that there's a fundamental case for UBI. Not a practical one to deal with the broken economy, but a fundamental one for UBI in a just society. And then we're also talking about all the layers of economic reform to kind of get us there holistically.
But you two, I'm so proud of you both. You're really doing it. You're really doing it. You're really just – Wow! I just want to say, wow! When we talk about this in theory in these conversations, but the two of you are really doing it.
[00:53:08] NF: Well, Jenny, thank you. That means a lot. And it's such a privilege to get to work on something you really believe in day to day, and frankly believe now that we could make it happen sometime in the next few years and right in front of us with a guaranteed income for families and children. It's really such a privilege. Because especially if you work in ideas advocacy, it's often a long time horizon to the moment it opens for those things. And so, I do feel like there is a lot of momentum. I feel really proud of the work and really motivated to make it happen.
[00:53:41] JS: You should. You should. And, yeah, again, I'm just proud of you two. And you two are just – this is one of the many incredibly impactful things that the two of you have done and are doing in the world. And I'm just so grateful to know you for your work. And I share Dorian's optimism. I mean, it just kind of feel like, what else are we here for than to go after the hardest problems and dedicate ourselves to them? And you two are just such extraordinary shining examples of that. And it's just such an honor to have you.
[00:54:14] DW: Jenny, thank you for, one, inviting us back. And second, you are doing it too, sister. I'm so proud of you for what this community you've created. And I'm just so happy and proud to be a part of it. Thank you for your service and your contribution to making this world a lot better than how you found it. Thanks so much, Jenny.
[00:54:33] NF: Thank you, Jenny.
[00:54:35] JS: Thank you so much for listening. In addition to this podcast, you can find additional resources on our website, www.becomingdenizen.com, including transcripts and links to additional background materials for each conversation. For our most essential topics like universal basic income, decentralized social media and stakeholder capitalism, we also have outlines summarizing our research, which make it easy for listeners to very quickly get an overview of these really essential and important subjects.
On our website, you can also sign up for our newsletter where we bring our weekly podcast to your inbox alongside other relevant Denizen announcements. We're partnered with a lot of really incredible organizations on the forefront of the change that we talk about. And so, we're often bringing you announcements from them.
And finally, this podcast is made feasible by the Denizen community and listeners like you through our gift model. Denizen's content will always be free and accessible. We believe that it's just much more aligned with the future that we seek to embrace this gift model. It's through the reciprocity of listeners like you that we are able to continue producing this content. So, you can support us or learn more about our gift model on our website. Again, that's www.becomingdenizen.com.
Thanks again for listening. And we hope you'll join us again next time.
Our weekly newsletter is the best way to stay abreast of our inquiry and ongoing events.
Denizen operates a gift model to foster generous, reciprocating relationships.