The basic income movement in India is growing rapidly. There are proposals for a national basic income, and the state of Sikkim seems likely to introduce a basic income program in the near to mid future. In this episode, Jim interviews Sarath Davala, who has been witness and participant to the progress that has led to this moment. He charts what got us to this point and what might happen in the near future.
With India seriously considering basic income proposals, the movement is gaining traction in South Asia. This includes Sri Lanka, which is having a wide reaching political debate in the lead up to its coming elections. We spoke to Talal Rafi, who is helping to spearhead the basic income movement in Sri Lanka about the state of the movement and his activism work there.
Recently the idea of a “data dividend” has received renewed attention, due to interest from California Governor Gavin Newsom. The idea that people are entitled to a cut of the profits from the data they are producing from their online activity, and even location data that companies are collecting holds some intuitive appeal. But how would this work, and is it a feasible policy? Chris Benner, author and professor in the UC Santa Cruz Sociology Department, joins the podcast to help elucidate the data dividend idea.
Italy’s Five-Star Movement rose to power campaigning on a host of proposals, chief among them a “citizen’s income,” a cash assistance program. While there are obvious thing to like about the program, there are problematic elements as well, including the inclusion criteria, and what recipients have to do to stay on the program. Owen and Jim break down the program and discuss whether or not the program should be seen as a step in the right direction.
Owen and Jim discuss Vice President Joe Biden’s recent objections to basic income, and the practical and philosophical points that come up around basic income and employment. They delve into why a basic income could be good for workers and how automation has both driven and skewed the basic income conversation. They also touch on the increasing precarity of today’s jobs and the highly valuable work that goes uncompensated. This episode originally aired in September 2017.
How would a basic income impact the disabled community? We delved into this question with social anthropologist Annie Harper of the Program for Recovery and Community Health, Yale School of Medicine. Harper, who works with mentally disabled people, describes the hopes and concerns a basic income offers. This episode was originally broadcast in November 2017.
How much would a basic income in the United States actually cost? What are the most common mistakes people make when calculating a basic income? To answer these questions, we spoke with Karl Widerquist, who has been studying and writing about basic income for three decades. Widerquist recently published a “back of the envelope” calculation on basic income which produced some surprising results. This episode was originally broadcast in September 2017.
We often talk about what effect a universal basic income would have on financial stability, but what about our mental state? Jim and Owen delve into the research around poverty and cognition, and explore the differences between an abundance mindset and a scarcity mindset. This episode was originally broadcast in June, 2017.
When considering the impact of basic income, we usually think of it as a standalone policy — but there’s nothing stopping us from imagining UBI as one piece of a larger policy framework. In this episode, Marina Gorbis, Executive Director of Institute for the Future, shares her perspective on a comprehensive framework for the future: Universal Basic Assets. This episode was originally broadcast in July, 2017.
In 2017, Hawaii became the first state to pass legislation on universal basic income, declaring that everyone in the state deserves basic financial security. The bill’s author, Representative Chris Lee, joined the Basic Income Podcast to discuss the legislation and his views on basic income. This is a rebroadcast of an episode that aired in June 2017.
Recently, we lost a basic income champion: Gerald Huff. Huff was a technologist, entrepreneur, and, at the end of his life, author of Crisis: 2038, a sci-fi novel that has basic income as a central plot element. Huff died of pancreatic cancer on November 17th. His daughter, Jane Huff, and basic income advocate Scott Santens joined the podcast to remember Gerald and discuss his novel and basic income advocacy.
Crisis: 2038 is available now as an ebook on Amazon, and the paperback version is available for preorder.
In 2010, Iran replaced their energy subsidies with a cash transfer program, which was originally intended only for poor Iranians, but was expanded to go to everyone. We now have ample data to examine the effects on labor supply and a handful of other social metrics. Much of our knowledge of Iran’s program comes from a study co-authored by our guest this week, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a professor of Economics at Virginia Tech, and a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Dr. Salehi Isfahani explains both the economic impact of the program and the public reaction to it.
A recent example of the power of unconditional cash is the My People Fund, launched by the Dollywood Foundation in the wake of the 2016 Kentucky wildfires. This program provided people who had lost their homes with monthly cash support to help them recover. Dr. Stacia Martin-West from the University of Kentucky analyzed the impact of this program and joined the podcast to discuss what she found.
We often talk about the desire for more trials and programs that give people unconditional cash, but one has been going on for decades: per capita payments in Sovereign Native American Nations. Under these programs, the nation is provided a revenue source–typically but not always from a casino–and this may be used in a number of ways, including “per-capita” payments to everyone in the nation. Payments vary in size, number of recipients, and duration. Thomas Klemm of the Pokagon band of the Potawatomi Indians, who is conducting qualitative research on per-capita payments, joined the podcast to discuss these programs and the impact they’ve had.
News broke recently that the city of Chicago has formed a task force to examine the future of work and a potential basic income pilot program. Alderman Ameya Pawar joined the podcast to discuss the motivation behind this initiative, who will be on the task force, and its current status.
Basic income pilots are ongoing or starting soon in Finland, Ontario, Stockton, Jacksonville, East Africa, and two other U.S. states to be announced. These represent some of the most exciting developments in the basic income space, but it’s worth taking a step back to think about why we invest the considerable time, energy, and money it takes to run a pilot. In this discussion episode, Owen and Jim delve into what pilots have meant so far to the basic income discussion, and where they might take us in the future.
As listeners of the podcast will almost certainly know, Stockton, California is planning a basic income trial for 2019. Jim spoke with Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs and project leader Lori Ospina about new details regarding how the program will be structured, how recipients will be selected, and the challenges and responses so far to the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration. For more information, you can go to StocktonDemonstration.org.
Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.
Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh.
Owen: As listeners of this show will undoubtedly know one of the most exciting developments in the basic income space is the coming basic income trial in Stockton, California next year.
Jim: There has been some recent announcements that tell us a little bit more about how that trial is going to work. Giving us more of a sense of how things are actually going to be developing in the months ahead.
Owen: To hear about some of the most recent announcements and the motivation behind the trial and everything else we know to date, Jim got to sit down with Michael Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton, California and Lori Ospina, the director of the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration.
Jim: Thank you both for joining on the Basic Income Podcast.
Lori: Thank you for having us.
Mayor Tubbs: Glad to be here.
Jim: Let’s start with the motivation for SEED. Mayor Tubbs, what first gave you the idea to pursue a basic income pilot in Stockton?
Mayor Tubbs: Well, I think a lot of it comes from two things. Number one, about a quarter of our population lives in poverty. I’ll argue another 25% to 30% is one paycheck away. I believe that poverty and economic insecurity is at the core. A lot of the other issues we face in the city from housing affordability to homelessness to crime, et cetera, educational attainment, et cetera, et cetera.
Also, just from lived experience, coming from a single parent household with a mom who worked incredibly hard and still struggled has always given me a passion for using the tools in government to create the conditions where the bottom doesn’t have to fall underneath people while being part of our community. With those motivations in mind, I had a group of policy researchers research some of the most radical intervention they could think from poverty. Last year, they came back with basic income.
I had been familiar with the term from reading Dr. King, what he called for in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?. The next week, we were able to meet the Economic Security Project who said they were looking for a city to pilot basic income, and that’s where SEED was born.
Jim: For most basic income pilot programs around the world, the sole purpose of the pilot is quantitative research: running a controlled experiment with randomized groups where some people receive a basic income, others don’t, and then looking for differences between those groups after some amount of time. But you’re aiming to do more than just the quantitative research in Stockton. You not only have researchers involved in the pilot but also artists and cultural creatives. What’s the motivation behind taking that approach?
Mayor Tubbs: Lori, feel free to jump in. Briefly, I’ll say that we understand that data alone doesn’t move people. For an idea and a concept like this, to really have it take hold, folks need stories, folks need images, and folks need art to really help raise consciousness, and also show that this is not a policy for “them” but for “all of us”. I think art has a way of doing that more so than a research study.
Lori: I would just add to that. I think that was a lot of what the vision that our funder, the Economic Security Project, had for it. There’s been a lot of research studies that have been done, and I think we collectively realized that there’s no absence of white papers on the topic. There’s no absence of results and data points. Yet, still somehow when we go out into the country and you try to talk about this idea, you still get what I call the knee-jerk reaction, the doubt, the skepticism that this can’t work or that it wouldn’t be used in an effective way.
I just really feel that by humanizing the experience of individuals, it allows people to see it with new eyes. Folks that maybe haven’t engaged in the conversation or hadn’t looked at some of the evidence today, we can pull them into another channel.
Jim: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. It aligns with what we’ve heard from a lot of other basic income advocates around the idea of what actually they’re seeing move people out there. It’s so exciting to hear that we’ll have more on that space through this spotlight.
Now, you hosted an event recently where you announced some key details of the plan for the Stockton pilot. Can you share what was in that announcement?
Lori: Sure. What we announced about, I guess it was about a month ago now, was the plans for how we would select recipients. Since very first day that the mayor announced the project, we have received a flood of emails, phone calls, visits from residents who want to find out how they can sign up, how they can be considered, how they can receive what has become known throughout the city as the “500 dollars.”
We were really excited to update people on what the plans were now that we have them in place. We had intentionally held it off really designing the selection process until we had our research evaluation partners on because we wanted to make sure that whatever way we chose, we could measure it in a meaningful way once we selected the recipient. Having our research team on board, we landed on a process which essentially is that, in order to select recipients, we will do a two steps process. The first step is, we’ll filter out all of the neighborhoods in the City of Stockton, where the area median income is at or below $46,000, which is the area median income for the City of Stockton.
Then, basically taking those neighborhoods that meet that income requirement, we will randomly choose addresses, and we’ll randomly send mailers out to potential recipients across those neighborhoods. We’ll start with about 1,000 knowing that some people may not respond, some people may toss away the letter, and some people might just not be compelled to participate.
Then from the people who we actually get a response from, we’ll randomly select about 100 recipients. Anyone who is not selected to be a recipient will then be invited to participate in the research components. While I know it’s not as good as a deal as getting $500 a month, we’ll still invite them to fill out surveys, participate in qualitative interviews, and when they do that, they’ll be compensated for their time.
That was pretty much the gist. The goal was really to help clarify and get the word out that people didn’t need to sign up or didn’t need to do a process at this point. We had mixed reviews on how well the message was received, though. A lot of people are really in need of help. Even though we made the announcement, we did hear from a lot of people still asking the question, “How do I sign up?” It’s been an interesting learning process and a good opportunity to talk with residents about the process and teach them and educate them on why we settled with the approach we did.
Jim: I’m curious to hear more about how the community has responded to this. This is something different than is happening anywhere else in the US. I imagine people in Stockton have thoughts on that. What generally seems to be people’s take that this is happening there?
Mayor Tubbs: I think a lot of people are excited for Stockton to be so cutting edge in the amount of attention it has received. I think the questions we get are, to Lori’s point earlier, “How do we qualify?” I think the people who are most critical are folks who think they won’t be able to get the money, which is interesting.
Lori: Yes. I would agree with the Mayor. Generally, someone asked me point blank the other day because I was talking about all the messages I received. They asked me point blank like, “Are most of them good? Are most of them bad? What do you see?” I really took stock. When I did so, I really feel and looked through the messages and whatnot. I really feel that the overwhelming response is positive. A lot of people who want to be considered. A lot of people who hope they will have a chance.
Even those who we ultimately say, “It’s going to be random. I can’t tell you if your address is going to be selected or not”. We do hear, “That makes a lot of sense. That seems really fair. I still hope I’m randomly selected, but I get it and that feels like a good approach and even if I’m not randomly selected I hope it reaches someone who will really benefit or really needs it”. A lot of really good will around it I would say.
Jim: That’s great to hear. Now, one thing that people often talk about with basic income is its simplicity and that being a positive thing. Often with the premise that if you’re just giving people cash, it will be very easy to manage the program. We’ve heard from other folks who are working on a cash transfer pilots that it often ends up being considerably more complicated than you might expect to get all the execution right on that. Lori, can you share some of your experiences on getting everything planned and up and running with SEED?
Lori: I know the Mayor is eager to see the project rolled out. I’m always trying to do it as quickly as possible. What I always say is that it’s really easy to hand out money. I could have done that on my very first day on the job. I think the thing that makes it complicated is doing it in a thoughtful, meaningful way that can ultimately be measured and tell us something insightful.
A lot of our delays or not even delays, but just a lot of what’s taking time is making sure that we can measure it. Making sure that our research and evaluation team is on board and in place and that they have the time necessary to develop the tools for analysis and for surveys and interviews and whatnot. The actual disbursement itself, there’s some complexities to it, but I think once we get started it does actually become fairly simple.
The one major stumbling block that I think is probably what some of the other folks have referred to or mentioned is around benefits interaction. Public benefits. The guaranteed income is intended to be a charitable gift for the purposes of learning and charitable purposes. But when it bumps up against the public benefits system, the interaction becomes a little bit more complicated.
The way it’s currently structured, even if we want to give the guaranteed income as a charitable gift, the public benefits administrators won’t view it that way, because it is recurring and because it’s predictable. They believe that the responsibility is on the recipients to report it as anticipated income. In which case it might lead to reductions in the public benefits that they’re currently receiving. That’s been really challenging.
I don’t know how much I want to get into the weeds here, Jim. In our purposes, given the fact that we are a smaller sample size, I think we have a little bit more liberty to work around that. What we’ve ultimately landed on is that we realize that that limitation exists, and we are not really going to be able to control for it at this time. Rather than trying to do so, we will make sure that potential recipients, before they commit to receiving the benefit, will be given all of the information they need in the advance to make a fully informed decision.
If at the end of the day, $500 a month is not in their family’s or in their household’s best interests, they will be given the chance to pass it up. If it is, then they’ll be given the chance to accept it.
Jim: It sounds like there’s some potentially challenging decisions and processes to be figured out in advance, but once you have those in place, you expect things to be much simpler.
Lori: Yes. I think there’s just so many ways, I say this all the time, every decision, there’s so many ways you can go with it. Cash touches every aspect of every person’s life. Trying to streamline it is almost impossible. Every decision we had to make, whether it was around the disbursement mechanism or the evaluation questions or the interaction with public benefits, they took time, and it was important to be thoughtful about them for sure because each one opens up a different net of possibilities. We’re closing in on a lot of them and eager to put it on autopilot.
Jim: Now, since the program was announced almost a year ago, it’s been very apparent that there’s a huge amount of interest in SEED out there. Mayor Tubbs, I know you’ve done a bunch of media appearances and I’m assuming have had conversations with many different individuals and organizations who are interested in the pilot. Has the reactions from people surprised you in any ways? Are there things that have stood out about those conversations?
Mayor Tubbs: I’ve been surprised with just how many people are really struggling in this economy. People who you think have fairly good jobs or fairly stable income will still talk about not be able to afford health insurance or rent or the kid’s college et cetera. That’s been incredibly eye opening. Then number two, how receptive, at least in the conversation, policymakers, elected officials, and folks are.
In June, I spoke at the lunch plenary on the US Conference of Mayors to 400 mayors across the nation just about basic income. Many came up after really excited trying to figure out how could their city be a part. Folks who are running for offices or planning to run for offices themselves or their staff, they’ll contact us, myself and Lori, to get more information. I didn’t realize so many people would be so interested in what we’re doing in Stockton.
Jim: Taking a step back, and imagining where things will be in, I guess, a bit over a year, when the pilot wraps up. What would success look like for you with this pilot?
Mayor Tubbs: I think for me, success is just having the pilot. The idea is to demonstrate, to show, to do, while being agnostic as to what exactly is shown. Since we’ve been knee-deep in the research and the community engagement, I think success overall looks like being able to answer the question with a study around what happens when people get $500 a month, no strings attached. Number one, what do people do with the money? Number two, does it make their lives better? It’s having some answer to those questions will be success to me.
Jim: Alright. Well, those were all the questions that we had. Anything else that either of you would like to add?
Mayor Tubbs: For folks who want more information, they can go to stocktondemonstration.org or @StocktonDemo on Twitter and Instagram.
Owen: That was Jim Pugh, Michael Tubbs, and Lori Ospina on the Basic Income Podcast. I think the main thing I took from that is just how much excitement and momentum there is around this trial and how it’s not just people in and around Stockton but politicians and leaders who are looking to this to be something where they can point to, to talk about basic income and bring it into the conversation.
Jim: Yes. The fact that Mayor Tubbs mentioned how much interest there was from other mayors but also people who are considering or are already running for office, I’m wondering if in the months ahead we’re going to start to see a lot more things popping up with basic income, either pilots or this being a major part of people’s policy platforms in the year ahead.
Owen: Yes, and it provides a reference point where now you don’t have to say basic income, this idea that outside of Alaska, we don’t have a lot of current data on in the US. Now we can say that thing going on in Stockton, let’s do that in the rest of the country.
Jim: Definitely, having more– it’ll be more normalized effectively. It’ll just be something that is happening out there and seeing how that will affect people’s perception, how that might potentially break down some of these barriers to adoption that we’ve encountered to date. I also thought it was– this is something that we’ve talked about before, but just the challenges of getting set up with a pilot here. It’s something where you have to make sure you get your ducks in a row.
It’s so important because you’re talking about something that could transform people’s lives for the better, but if you do it wrong, that could backfire in many, many ways. I’ve heard at times people express skepticism, maybe, at the fact that some of these things were taking so long. But I really think this is an area where you need to make sure you’re getting things right.
Owen: Yes, especially because it is so new. I think maybe we even gloss over that factor that basic income is a new policy and just people aren’t quite sure how to react to it at first, so to normalize it a bit but also to make it so that it actually works I think is crucial.
Jim: Yes. I’m very eager to also see and hear the stories that come out of Stockton since, we’ve talked about this before, but the culture change aspect of this is so fundamental and getting to really get these personal experiences of what difference basic income is making in someone’s life. I think that could be a game changer.
Owen: Yes. There’s going to be a turn of media on this one way or another. Just to have actual interview subjects who can talk about their life before and after. Yes, that’s really going to stick with people.
That’ll do it for this episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. Please subscribe and rate us and review us on the podcast service of your choice. And tell your friends — we are always looking to bring more people into the movement. Talk to you next week.
For so many people, including both hosts of the podcast, the entry point to basic income was concerns about automation and how it could create an economy that requires many fewer employees. In this discussion episode, Owen and Jim delve into the pluses and minuses of automation’s primacy in the basic income discussion, and what a more rounded rationale for basic income looks like.
Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.
Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. Something that comes up very, very often in basic income conversations and media coverage is a strong connection between basic income and automation. The idea that basic income is a solution for or at least is very closely, innately tied together with this idea that automation will drastically change our workspace in the relatively near future.
Owen: Yes, and I think this is how we both initially came to the idea of basic income. We wanted to take this episode to discuss the pros and cons of tying these two things together and why it’s happened so much so far.
We imagine most of our listeners are pretty familiar with automation and a lot of the discussion around that. There are a lot of really good resources that you can dig up pretty easily if you are not. We’ll give a quick overview of what we are talking about when we talk about automation and basic income, but spend most of this episode talking about more of the discussion in how these two have been linked.
In terms of what we’re talking about when we say that many jobs could be a threat, there’s, for instance, a study that came out of Oxford that 47% of jobs are at risk of being automated. There are other similar studies that produce results in that catastrophic range.
Jim: Right, and the idea that not only could automation replace a lot of the types of jobs that you more traditionally think about being automated, these more mechanical rote jobs, but as artificial intelligence gets more sophisticated and smarter, there may actually be a lot of mental work that becomes at risk of being replaced as well. Work done by doctors, lawyers, professions that in the past it really didn’t seem like there was any reason to be concerned around.
All this together creates this pretty terrifying specter of what the future might look like. That if most of the work that gets done today through paid jobs can be automated and will be automated, suddenly we are looking at the scenario where most jobs are gone, most people don’t have a path to paid employment, and therefore we need to do something radically different than what we have today, perhaps basic income.
Owen: Right, and a lot of the most prominent, most public advocates for basic income are people who come at it from an automation angle; Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, and the presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
Jim: Yes, I think you see, if you are just looking at media coverage, so often it is about these very high profile people who have spoken out in favor of basic income. At least with the view that they think we need basic income with this assumption that we’re moving towards that future that looks like that.
Because of that, because there has been so much coverage of it, because you do have these high profile folks who are talking about it or running for president on it, I think very often that just becomes this internalized idea that those have that these two things go together and that they are tied to one another. If you look at the online conversation, this is very, very common. What people post about on Twitter or wherever else, it’s saying, “Automation is coming soon, therefore, basic income.”
Owen: Right, and I find this anecdotally, I get the reverse a lot of the time where I start talking about basic income and someone assumes it’s because of automation. These two things are very intertwined right now, and there are good things and bad things about that. One good thing is it’s bringing a lot of urgency to the conversation. It would be a little strange if there wasn’t anything driving basic income to suddenly try to introduce this very radical kind of out of nowhere policy, but automation makes people think of it kind of naturally.
Jim: For me, the metaphor that I feel like fits really well here is the boiling frog one. You’ll often hear this in the context of climate change, but the premise is essentially that if you take a frog and you put it in a pool of water, it will sit there. If you gradually crank up the heat on that water, the frog just sits there. Because it’s a gradual increase, it’s always just like, “Okay, I’m just chilling here,” and you can keep doing that up until you cook the frog.
In contrast, if you suddenly increase the temperature a lot, that’s a shock and a jolt, and it causes the frog to hop out. With the challenges that we’re seeing in our economy, there’s so much that’s already not working for people that I think many of us in the basic income space feel that regardless of what happens with automation, we should have basic income today.
But because those things have gradually gotten worse and worse over time, there has never been that big push, certainly at least in DC, to pursue a policy of the magnitude of basic income. Automation suddenly creates this image of change so drastic, so incredibly different than what we see right now that it kind of knocks people into this headspace of, “Oh, wait, we do need to rethink so much stuff.” So it has that effect of creating that temperature spike that jolts people into a different headspace here.
Owen: Yes, and I think that is one of the hopes of the automation conversation is that people get the jolt and then you can maybe then take a step back and say, “Well, we can also look at how much economic insecurity there’s right now.” There’s that widely-cited stat of about half of American families can’t afford an unexpected $400 expense. Once you start talking about that and you see the research on cash transfers, then maybe we can bring some of these people along into the wider, “Let’s just do this regardless of what happens with automation discussion.”
One more thing I will add on the pro side of the specter of automation is that I don’t see it as having a partisan lens right now. I think people of all stripes can see this as an issue that’s coming. We’re talking about this as a rhetorical thing, but it is true that automation may– it already is, probably, and certainly could have drastic effects on our economy going forward and that affects Democrats as well as Republicans. I don’t think there’s one side saying, “This is going to happen,” and another side saying, “No, it isn’t.”
Jim: On a related note, I think that the advantage of these two being seen as tied together is if there’s suddenly a big incident of automation causing massive job loss all of a sudden, then if those are tied together, maybe there will be a natural response by elected officials to say, “Oh, okay, maybe we should pass the basic income now.” If that can be teeing up basic income as a response there, then maybe there’s a lot of value in that.
Owen: Yes, and I think the challenge for us right now is to get basic income into the zeitgeist enough that that is the response as opposed to something else I guess.
Jim: Besides the reasons that we should be tying this together, we wanted to talk a bit more about the reasons why tying this together could potentially have some downsides and could be dangerous when thinking about the long-term trajectory of basic income.
One is that if we are explicitly saying that when we have this massive job loss we need basic income, it’s setting basic income up as a response to a future threat rather than the response to challenges today. In that scenario, even though you could say, “Oh, we should do basic income now so we are ready for that point,” generally, that’s not the way a policy-making in this country works.
People pass things when they feel like they are necessary. So it could mean that we run up against some pretty challenging obstacles when thinking about how do we actually move policy to provide people with basic income forward if we’re saying, “We just need to be ready for this,” as opposed to, “We need this right now.”
Owen: Right, and I feel like that can be especially dangerous here because I think automation happens more slowly than people tend to think it does because it’s happening at different speeds in different ways across all different industries. It’s hard to have one moment where it’s like, before, automation wasn’t a threat and now it is, and it’s a headline in the news and everyone is talking about it. I feel like it’s much more at a local level.
I spoke to a candidate for governor in Michigan, who is no longer a candidate, but he was talking about how after the recession when a lot of car manufacturers lost their jobs, a lot of those jobs didn’t come back because of automation. So you have these kind of mini-moments, but I don’t think we have a broad national moment to point to. I think framing it as a future threat, you might not ever know the moment when that threat arrives.
Jim: I think another thing is, if your entire framing is that basic income is a response to automation, you risk occluding the other really, really important and good reasons why we should have basic income. A lot of the things we talked about in the past: the way that basic income would address racial inequities in our current system; the way that basic income could empower women in a way that’s not currently possible; the way that basically income could encourage more people to pursue the paths of lives they wouldn’t have otherwise had an opportunity to.
If the way that you talk about basic income is solely in that automation frame, it would be very dangerous that people just wouldn’t even appreciate those other things. Not only does it mean that you potentially lose those strong arguments, that may then affect the specifics of whatever policy ends up being proposed.
Assuming we do get to a point where people are ready to pass something here, if it’s being designed solely with the idea that, “Oh, automation is taking jobs from people who have them today, let’s figure out something to do about that,” as opposed to, “Let’s make sure that we design this program in a way that is achieving those other benefits that we think could be really transformative about basic income.”
Owen: Yes, along those lines, if you’re only solving for automation, then saying, “Okay, we have all these truck drivers who are making $70,000 a year plus benefits, and they just lost those jobs, but we’re just going to give them a $1,000 a month and not worry about them,” that doesn’t sound like much of a response. So you would probably have a good counter to say, “Well, we should do jobs training or something else instead.” I think only focusing on automation again leaves out all the good it can do, and it does seem like an insufficient response to widespread job loss.
Jim: If you are one of those truck drivers or anyone else that we talk about or think may be in a position where their job is at high risk of automation — admittedly, I think that doing more studies and getting more experience around what the specific response is — but it is very hard to accept some hypothetical idea that really puts your livelihood at risk.
That is something that– it just creates cognitive dissonance for most people when you say, “Oh, sure, you have a good job now, but five years from now, maybe a computer will be doing that, and you don’t have training, and you’re going to be in this terrible spot,” a lot of people won’t even listen to what you have to say after that. So you’re potentially setting up your rationale as one that immediately shuts down a lot of the potential reception that might exist out there for this idea.
Owen: Yes, and I guess another case where climate change is a good analogy and that it’s hard to have people understand a distant threat to themselves. Another way that this idea can make people kind of shut down or even get angry is that it feels like you’re surrendering to some inevitable future where the robots are coming and there’s nothing we can do about them. You hear people saying, “Well, couldn’t we just not build those robots? Couldn’t we design an economy that actually supports people?”
Those are worthy conversations as well, but I think again, it’s just leaving out all the reasons why a basic income would be completely transformative regardless or including the idea that automation could be coming for a lot of jobs. Where I’ve seen this most visibly for me is in the labor space, where people are saying, “You’re just going to let our jobs go away. You’ve already moved on from a world where we have these jobs.” And that gets people angry and makes people defensive.
Jim: I’ve heard a number of basic income advocates, when they’re presented with that argument that, “Oh, we can just choose not to automate,” they’ll say, “You’re saying you’re standing in the way of progress.” If you automate, it means you’re being more efficient. It means that overall you’re doing more with less, which should be a good thing.
They’ll say, “Look at history. Anytime you try to stand in the way of progress, it’s never actually worked out.” This is a bad approach to respond to automation, that they believe is very soon coming. I think that particularly now you’re actually starting to hear some proposals in how we might respond to that in a way that doesn’t actually respond against progress but does ensure that we are setting up workers and empowering people so that when there is potential for automation, it would only be done if it did leave people well off.
I think a great example of this is the recent proposal from Senator Elizabeth Warren where she says that corporations, publicly traded corporations should be required that 40 percent of their board seats are elected by workers of the company. It’s actually giving workers in this company a voice in how the company governance.
In that scenario, you can imagine it would be a lot harder for a company to suddenly say, “Oh, we’ve got this new tech that allows us to replace a million people. We’re going to go do it,” if those million people actually have chosen as some sort of leaders in company governance in a way where they have a strong say in the direction of the company. Maybe they figure out some sort of solution that moves towards that and also helps out the workers, but it’s a lot harder to then imagine this sudden shift where tons and tons of people are left with nothing.
Owen: Yes, and just continuing that example for a second: maybe the solution is, okay, we can’t stop technological progress as much as we’d like, but maybe those workers get an equity stake. I feel like that’s– a lot of what people just want is for the workers who are maybe getting screwed over in the future is to just give them a share of that pie because then it’s more okay if the money is not just getting siphoned up to just a handful of already very rich people who already own these companies.
Jim: The final reason why using automation as the rationale for basic income makes me nervous is that it sets up basic income as a policy that is against something. That this terrible thing that’s happening, therefore basic income, rather than basic income because this opens up this transformative world of possibilities for us.
The thing that comes to mind when I think about this is– let’s imagine a popular movement that could hopefully exist in the very near future, a big popular movement, millions of people involved advocating for basic income. What are the signs you’re going to see at those rallies? Is it going to be “Robots are coming, basic income now”? Or is it going to be “True freedom, racial justice, gender equality, therefore basic income”?
From my experience, I can’t think of a single movement that is really done in that oppositional way. I can think of a protest, but if we’re actually talking about this powerful grassroots movement that’s going to shepherd this policy into existence, it has to be about what basic income is for and not what it’s against.
Owen: I think automation works really well, it’s kind of the cherry on top of, “Here’s all the reasons why this would be wonderful and transformative and exciting for our society and also by the way it would help inoculate us against this potential future threat which is being discussed about a lot.” Just, “The robots are coming, and we need to rally against them,” I feel like that’s a difficult sell.
Jim: Right, maybe it’s a wake-up call, but I think as your raison d’être for basic income, I think there’s the challenges that we just laid out.
Owen: I feel like automation is such a part of this conversation, and we don’t need to shut that down or say that you’re wrong for talking about automation, especially because it is bringing a lot of people into the conversation. It’s just important to be conscious as an advocate for UBI or just someone who likes to talk about it or listen to podcasts about it that it is just one part of a real panoply of reasons to be talking about this.
Jim: Well, that’ll do it for this episode. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davison. If you liked what you hear, please do rate and review the Basic Income Podcast on Apple Podcast or the podcast service of your choice, and please do tell your friends about this. We are always looking for new listeners. We’ll talk to you next time.
It’s easy to forget that one U.S. state administers a universal cash dividend and has for over thirty years. Alaska came into a windfall from leasing its oil lands in the late seventies and early eighties, and made the bold decision to invest the revenue in a sovereign wealth fund, which provides cash dividends to every Alaskan on an annual basis. Alaska State Sen. Bill Wielechowski joins the podcast to discuss the past, present and future of the Alaska Permanent Fund, and if it could be a model for the entire country.
Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.
Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. We have many, many times on this podcast brought up the Alaska Permanent Fund as really the only existing example of government-run universal income that exists today, certainly in the US and it seems to a large degree around the world, where people there, everyone in the state is getting this check every year that came from the oil money there.
But we haven’t ever really dived in deeply on what are all the dynamics that actually come into play with that? How does that work, and how did it come to be?
Owen: To delve into that, I got to speak with Alaska State Senator Bill Wielechowski, who is a big proponent of the fund and gave us an on-the-ground book on what’s going on in Alaska.
Jim: Here’s Owen’s interview with Senator Bill Wielechowski.
Owen: Senator Wielechowski, thank you for joining us on the podcast.
Senator Wielechowski: Thank you for having me.
Owen: Many of our listeners are familiar with the Alaska Permanent Fund, but just to ground us, would you describe the fund and how it works?
Senator Wielechowski: Yes, the Alaska Permanent Fund was set up in 1982. What had happened was, several years before that, we had discovered oil in Alaska in Prudhoe Bay. The state of Alaska got $900 million for the royalties from leasing that out. This was at a time when our annual state budget was around $125 million. They had spent all that $900 million within about six years.
The people of Alaska were frustrated, and they wanted to be able to put some away, and they wanted to be able to make sure that some of it went to everyday ordinary Alaskans because a lot of that money went to big special interests. It went to people who were politically connected. They created the Alaska Permanent Fund, and they put in 25% of all the royalty money that we get for our oil and gas. We have a tremendous amount of oil and gas in Alaska.
This is something that’s unique about Alaska compared to every other state in the country. We’re the only state in the country where the state actually owns subsurface rights. We actually own the oil and gas as opposed to a private landowner in say Texas, North Dakota, or California where if you happen to own a land, you’re a farmer, rancher, and you shoot and hit the ground and oil shoots up, you actually, the private landowner, own that oil. In Alaska, that belongs to the state, and it belongs collectively to everyone.
What better way to share that resource wealth than to pay it out in a dividend to every single Alaskan? That’s exactly what we do. Every man, woman, and child who is a resident of the state of Alaska — you have to be a resident for one full calendar year — you’re eligible for a Permanent Fund Dividend. It’s been as high as about $3,200 several years ago. This year, it’s projected to be about $1,600 per person. For a family of four, it’s a significant amount of income.
It’s done some really tremendous things in Alaska. We have the lowest income inequality in the United States, in large part because of the Permanent Fund Dividend program. It’s something that comes out in October once a year, and it just provides a huge, huge economic boost to our state. It provides a huge boost to people. Kids are going back to school. People use it for school supplies, for clothes, for food. Certainly, people go out and use it for big screen TVs and trips to Hawaii, but the studies and research shows the vast majority of it just goes to ordinary bills. Paying your bills and putting money towards college and education, food and fuel, which is very expensive in Alaska.
Owen: Yes, and that pretty much answers my next question, which was just what it means to Alaskans to have this money coming in every year. Because it’s not an income replacement by any means, but $1,000 to $3,000, it’s pretty significant.
Senator Wielechowski: It is significant. When you think about it, a family of four in Alaska makes around, an average family makes around $50,000 per year. If you’re getting $1,600 apiece, you’re looking at a pretty significant amount of money. That’s over $6,000. That’s like 12% of your annual earnings for the average family. Now, I represent a little bit lower income district. Probably the average wage in my district and in some of the nearby districts is maybe around $25,000 or $30,000.
For a family of four, and some of those families have much larger families, it’s a significant portion of their income. Obviously, it impacts people on the lower end of the income scale much more than people on the higher end of the income scale. To make a million dollars, you get another 6,000 bucks, it’s kind of peanuts. If you’re making $25,000 and you’ve got eight people in your family, which is not unusual for some of our families, including extended families, it’s a huge, huge income boost.
It really has helped elevate people, uplift people. We’ve heard stories about people, they save up, they wait till the Permanent Fund Dividend check comes around, and they’ll buy a car so that they can go out and get a job, and get work.
There’s district that I used to represent, 50% of the people don’t have cars. We don’t have the greatest public transportation system here in Alaska. It provides a huge amount of economic freedom for people. Some people save it up and put it in their kids’ college education fund. We’ve got programs that are set up for a local university here. You talk to many, many Alaskans, and they’ll tell you they paid for their college through their Permanent Fund Dividend.
A lot of people, it’s food and fuel. If you go out, particularly in rural Alaska, there are no roads to get there. It takes a plane from Anchorage, it can cost $700 to $1,000 round trip just to get to some of these villages. There is very little economic activity, if any. You have some villages where there’s 50, 60 people. There are no stores, there’s just no economy at all. A gallon of milk could cost you $11. A gallon of gasoline can cost you $7, $8, $10. Extremely expensive. It’s a matter of survival for a lot of people in rural Alaska to get the dividend check.
Owen: That’s fascinating. I have so many questions just about what those villages are like. I’ll try to stay focused here. You were getting into this, but it sounds like you’ve observed some ripple effects from the cash infusion. It’s not just a little extra money, it could mean maybe someone who’s able to then start earning more money because they’re able to, say, invest in a vehicle or something else or they’re able to go to school. It’s maybe the first domino of many in terms of changing people’s lives.
Senator Wielechowski: No doubt, it has a tremendous domino effect. There was a big debate when they started the program as to whether or not kids could get it. Ultimately, they decided that, well, parents could apply for their kids or guardians would apply for the children. Children do get it. Some parents will save up and use that for college. Other parents, they just can’t afford to do that. They’ll use that to go out and start small businesses.
I’ve heard stories about people who, they’ll pull up their entire family’s Permanent Fund Dividend check, and they’ll start a small business. They’ll start maybe a food truck, or they’ll go out and get a car and be able to have somebody go to work and earn money for the family. There are definitely domino effects that occur because of this. In rural Alaska, we have many people that live a subsistence lifestyle. There are no stores, there are no grocery stores, you can’t walk down the street or even drive your car and go to a grocery store.
A lot of people live a subsistence lifestyle. For them, it’s really important that they have maybe a snow machine which will enable them to get out and pick berries, or go hunting, or go fishing. Of course, you need gas to go and do that, to use your snow machine or your boat, for example. It really is just a matter of survival, because the prices are so high up there. You just can’t really comprehend the cost and how it is in some of these communities, some of these villages.
Owen: Just a logistical question: when children get the fund, does that go to their parents or does it– like a separate bank account or something?
Senator Wielechowski: If you’re under 18 in Alaska, then your parents go ahead and file for you. The parents ultimately decide where that money goes. This was a big, big debate when you go back and look at the historical minutes of creating the Permanent Fund. Some people thought kids shouldn’t get it and that it should just go to people over 18. Ultimately the decision was made. You know what? If you’re an Alaskan resident, if you were just born– in fact, we have a special provision, you have to live a full calendar year in the state of Alaska. If you are a child and you’re born on December 31, it says, then you’re treated as if you’ve lived in in the state for full year.
Part of that was just the recognition that kids are expensive and parents should be able to have access to that money. Like I said, some parents will use it for education savings. Others will use it for just basic food supplies, clothing, shelter, rent, to fuel, things like that.
Owen: The Permanent Fund is, as far as I know, the only program in the United States where the only requirement is to be a resident of the state. There’s no income requirement, there’s no disability or anything like that. Has there ever been a pushback from people saying this shouldn’t go to millionaires or some kind of requirement?
Senator Wielechowski: We have this debate every now and then. There definitely are some people that believe that, but it becomes fundamentally how do you look at what the Permanent Fund in Alaska is. I think if you were to ask most Alaskans, you may get a little bit different explanation or belief on what the purpose of it is. I think from my perspective, and I think the way many Alaskans will look at it, is it’s our ownership share.
We have these tremendous natural resources here in Alaska. The Permanent Fund is comprised of the royalties from mining from oil, from gas. You have these tremendous resources. It’s looked at like an ownership share. If you have a stock in AT&T, or Apple, or Google, for example, and you get a dividend, it doesn’t matter if you’re a millionaire, if you don’t have any money at all. It’s your ownership share.
I think that’s the way that most Alaskans look at it, is it’s my ownership share. I’m an Alaskan and I, through the Alaska constitution, own part of the resources. They belong to the to the state collectively, and I’m a resident of the state. It’s how we share in all our resources.
When you step back, and you say we’re going to start excluding millionaires, rich people, in which we don’t have a huge number in Alaska, then it changes the way the Permanent Fund is viewed in the state. It changes it more of from an ownership share to maybe what some people would perceive as an entitlement. I think in Alaska, we prefer to look at it, and I think it’s the better way to look at it certainly for us, as an ownership share.
Owen: It really does change the mentality around it when it’s not some people get it and some people don’t. Speaking of the politics around the Permanent Fund, just in the last year, the representatives in Alaska took some money out of the fund to pay for government. Can you just update us on the state of the fund? Is it under threat and just what’s going on with that right now?
Senator Wielechowski: The Permanent Fund is under threat. In fact, it’s been under threat since the very day that it passed back in 1982. There was a governor that ran– sort of the godfather of the Permanent Fund is our former Governor Jay Hammond, it was his vision. He termed out in 1982 and a new governor was elected, a guy named Bill Sheffield. One of his top priorities was actually to get rid of the Permanent Fund. He didn’t like the idea of paying out a dividend.
What we’ve seen over the years ever since we’ve had it is rich and powerful special interests have been chomping at the bit to get into the Permanent Fund. It’s this huge pool of money. Right now, every Alaskan gets, this year it’ll be $1,600 dollars every man, woman, and child. That doesn’t matter if you’re politically connected. It doesn’t matter who your mother or father is or your access to maybe some powerful political figure. If you were to change that and give all that money to government and allow the politicians to divvy it up, then who gets it?
Well, people more likely to get it are those who are very well politically connected. Those who understand how to use the political process to their advantage. Those who are big campaign contributors. They often somehow tend to benefit from these things. What happens is someone who’s rich and powerful, they’re able to come in and get maybe 1000 times what they would ordinarily get or more, a million times. Look at what government dolls out to special interest in terms of tax breaks and tax credits and just flat out giving money away. The rich and powerful who know how to use the political process get more money that way.
This has been a constant struggle in Alaska ever since the very day that the Permanent Fund Dividend was created. The rich and powerful, big special interests, have always wanted to get rid of it because they want to get more for themselves. It’s been a constant fight because the rest of the people are not as organized. They tend not to be as organized and as politically active. There’s been that constant fight.
In 1999, we were in a similar situation. We very dependent on the price of oil. The price of oil was down in ’99. There was talk about, “Hey, we’re going to have to start using the Permanent Fund to pay for government,” and they decided to put it out to a vote of the people. The oil companies spend millions of dollars and the big special interests Chamber of Commerce came in and spent huge amounts of money trying to convince people that we really need to start using the Permanent Fund for government.
The supporters literally spent millions of dollars. The opponent’s was just this ragtag group of people. They spent about $5,000. The opposition got 83% of the vote. 83% of Alaskans said no, don’t touch the Permanent Fund. Don’t use it for government.
Now we have a governor who’s just been hell-bent on getting into the Permanent Fund and cutting the dividends, slashing dividends. For the first time in history, he unilaterally cut the dividend. He vetoed the dividend. I sued him. I went to the Supreme Court, unfortunately, Supreme Court found in his favor. Then since then, so in 2016, 2017, and now 2018, the dividend has been cut. It’s been at the push of large multinational corporations, very wealthy special interests who want to get into the Permanent Fund and want to use that for government. They want to be able to have access to that money.
That dividend this year is supposed to be about 2,700, instead it’s going to be about 1,600. It’s a big issue politically. It’s going to be a big issue in the upcoming elections, and we’ll see what happens with that.
Owen: It is a live issue that gets a lot of play in your elections? You talk about it, I’m sure, but has it come up in governor’s race as well?
Senator Wielechowski: Absolutely. This year will be the first year where it’s going to be just a huge issue. It is probably one of the focal issues in this upcoming election cycle, certainly for governor, because you have a governor who made it really, his top priority was to cut the dividend. There have been Facebook pages that have started up and groups that have started up. The one thing about social media is it’s allowed everyday ordinary Alaskans to mobilize.
We had this one Facebook group that started up, it’s got about 18,000 or 19,000 members, which is a lot for Alaska. They’re opposing the cutting of the Permanent Fund Dividend check. There are small groups that start up, but it’s not like you’re a big corporation and you can assign a few people make $100,000 to go out and have an astroturf social media program. This is a small group of people.
If you go and you talk to the people on the street, if you go door to door, if you go to the local grocery store, go talk to people at town hall meetings, they’re very interested in this issue. This is a huge issue to them. The majority of Alaskans don’t support what’s happening. We’ll see how it plays out in the upcoming election.
Owen: Is this something that those of us in the other 49 states can help out with in any way or is it more your fight?
Senator Wielechowski: Well, we’re always looking for help. Funding-wise, we have some strict laws on how much money candidates can get from outside of the state, which I think is a good thing. There’s probably ways that people can help, and we’ve worked with some organizations outside that are interested in basic income and look at the Permanent Fund as a type of basic income. They’ve been helpful. They’ve come to Alaska, met with them, have had good discussions with them, and they’ve offered some help.
We’re always looking for help. We’re a small state. It’s just special interests here have an unbelievable amount of power. We have yet to truly organize the people to be able to stand up to protect the dividend. We’re fighting now.
Owen: The last thing I want to ask you is about Alaska as a model for other states and maybe the country as a whole. Even Hillary Clinton in her book after the election wrote that she was considering a program that she was actually calling Alaska for America where we use the public resources, create a fund and distributed dividend. Do you think that basic model would work anywhere?
Senator Wielechowski: I do. I do. Absolutely. When you think about it, in the United States, in Alaska, why would it be any different? The oil and gas, it belongs to all the people. If you’ve got oil and gas in the ground, there are certainly federal lands where there’s a tremendous amount of oil and gas and mining resources and timber resources — that belongs to all the people. It doesn’t just belong to a select small group of special interests, it belongs to all the people. Why shouldn’t you be able to take a portion of that and give it back to the people?
I think it would have a tremendously positive impact on the lives of potentially every American. Scale-wise, you have to work out how the numbers work, but this country is just unbelievably blessed with incredible natural resources, and they belong to all the people. I think we can probably work out a way to figure out how to share that with every American. Absolutely.
Owen: Well, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Senator Wielechowski: I have read and I believe the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend program is one of the most successful political programs in the history of the United States, if not the world. You look at the polling, and I’ve seen what it does to the lives of tens of thousands of Alaskans. There’s just tons of research on it lifting people out of poverty and providing education and food and fuel and just basic things that you need in life to move on and providing a tremendous economic activity. It is something that I think has been tremendously successful. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.
I think we need to figure out a way that we can take this, use this as a model and have it all around the country. Have it in the United States. I know it’s starting to pick up some steam, and we’ve seen other attempts and in the rest of the world. There’s some communities, now they’re talking about doing it in the United States. This is definitely an issue that’s worth moving forward on and worth fighting for. It’s been tremendously successful here. I don’t see why it could be tremendously successful throughout the country.
Jim: That was Owen speaking with Senator Bill Wielechowski of Alaska about the Alaska Permanent Fund.
Owen: I just found it was striking how much the dividend is incorporated into people’s lives. It’s just, say, $2,000 one time a year, but for some people in some families, it seems to be really deeply incorporated into their incomes and how they plan out the whole year.
Jim: I think that’s not necessarily unique to a universal income program. I think, oftentimes, any sort of social support program, at least one that’s visible to people, once it’s in place, it starts to feel natural, and it’s just something that’s there. I think given the conversation that often happens around universal income, and this idea that once we have this, “Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen? Will people stop working? Will they be buying all these terrible things?” These nightmare scenarios that people throw out there, even though they’re not based on evidence.
Actually seeing this immediate example of, “Oh, once you have this, it’s just there and life gets easier for people.” You have less inequality but it doesn’t actually look completely different or foreign in an ongoing way.
Owen: I also thought that Wielechowski really showed how versatile cash is. You’ve got these rural villages where you can’t even take a road to get there. You have to fly there, and they’re mostly hunter-gatherer type societies. They have very specific needs, and it’s not what you normally think of when you think of what cash can be used for. You think housing and food, but cash helps them in the same way that it helps a family of four in Anchorage, say. It helps you fill in whatever gaps who have, whether that’s milk and gasoline for the rural society or the school supplies maybe for Anchorage.
Jim: Right. Yet another example of how you can imagine if someone were to come in and at the state level be thinking about, “Okay, what are our support programs?” If they were to design some in-kind system, it’s very, very possible they might have overlooked some of these cases and come up with a solution that wasn’t actually the right one for a lot of people, whereas with cash, as you say, you have that versatility, and so everyone is able to figure out for themselves what they actually want to do with it.
The other thing that really struck me in the conversation was hearing more about the political dynamics that have happened over time with the Permanent Fund. The fact that there really has been, it seems like almost constant attempts to raid the fund by government over time, and it has actually, up until this most recent issue, has managed to defend itself against that because people did have that sense of ownership there. You can think of a few examples of other social programs that have managed to withstand outside attempts to disrupt them, but that seems pretty exceptional.
Owen: Yes, and it shows the popularity of the fund with the polls that have been done on it show that people are happy to have higher taxes to sustain the fund and that, yes, even when people in power want to take it down, usually the people rise up. Hopefully, that will happen again, because as Wielechowski said, it is under threat right now.
Jim: Right, and I am very curious to see what the results of this upcoming election will be and if that ends up being a referendum on this effort to raid it. If it does, I think that says even more. Letting us gain more insight into what something like this means there and extrapolate from that as to what the dynamics might be in other places.
Owen: Alright, that will do it for this episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer Erick Davidson. Please subscribe on Apple Podcast or the service of your choice, and tell your friends about the show so we can bring in more people into this conversation. See you next week.
Recently, we got a very exciting announcement from Springboard To Opportunities and the Economic Security Project: the two groups are collaborating to create the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. This program will provide an unconditional basic income to a small group of low-income African American mothers. Owen spoke to Aisha Nyandoro, who works with low-income women in Mississippi and will be leading the program.
Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.
Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. We had some big news come out recently in the basic income space. There’s a new pilot that’s being launched right now in the United States. This one is called the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. It’s going to provide $1,000 per month with no conditions to 15 low-income families headed by African-American women based in Jackson, Mississippi. They’ll be receiving those payments over the course of one year. The pilot’s being managed by Springboard To Opportunities, which is a direct service organization that’s also based in Mississippi.
Owen: To give us the lowdown on what this program is, how it got started, and what might come of it, I spoke with Aisha Nyandoro. She is the head of Springboard To Opportunities and is leading this project.
Jim: Here is Owen’s interview with Aisha.
Owen: Aisha, thank you for joining us on the podcast.
Aisha: Thank you so much for having me, Owen. I appreciate it.
Owen: To start, can you just tell us about Springboard To Opportunities? What its mission is and how it goes about achieving that?
Aisha: Yes. Thank you. Springboard To Opportunities is a non-profit based in Mississippi, but we do work in several states throughout the country. We are a resident service provider. We provide programs and services for individuals who live in federally subsidized affordable housing to help them achieve their dreams in life, school, and work. We take a holistic approach to service delivery. That’s anything from after-school programs, to workforce training, and job placement.
We really do pride ourselves on being radically resident-driven – that’s our tag – on being radically resident-driven and really listening to the families with whom we have a pleasure of serving and making sure that we are being responsive to the needs that they tell us that they have for their families.
Owen: That’s excellent. Very recently, Springboard To Opportunities made a very exciting announcement about the creation of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. Could you tell us what that is?
Aisha: Owen, you have very few opportunities in life, I feel, to do something that you think is bold and big and take a risk where you really have a chance to just put everything you believe out there on the line. That’s what the Magnolia Mother’s Trust is for us. Just to give you a little backstory about how this came to be, for the last couple of years, I’ve really been torn with the reality that the work that we’re doing at Springboard, even though it’s awesome and amazing, it really was not helping us move the needle on poverty.
We really began to do some work in examining the policies and various things that are in place as it relates to our families and realized there was a disconnect between what they actually needed and the reality of what they were receiving. Over time and time again in conversations with our families, what it was that we kept learning is that they really just needed more access to cash. That there were very few opportunities for them to get cash without there being strings attached and for them to get cash that they could use for just whatever it was that they needed for their families. Not a voucher, not a subsidy, but cold hard cash.
About a year or so ago, I really started taking that idea and I’m like, “Okay. If we could give them cash, what would that look like?” That is from which the Magnolia Mother’s Trust was birthed. With that idea that if you just give individuals cash, for us primarily it will be women. That’s why it’s “Mother’s” because the majority of the individuals that we work with in our adult population are African-American women and their children. Really just saying what would it look like if we gave women money with no strings attached and really for us just focusing on that African-American population because that’s the majority of the individuals that we work with.
What innovations could come to light if individuals were not constantly kept in a sea of trying to just survive? If individuals really had what it is that they need to thrive, what could happen within these communities? What the Magnolia Mother’s Trust is going to do is going to give $1,000 per mother for 12 months to 15 individuals that live in federally subsidized affordable housing. For our population, that is a game-changer, because on average, individuals that we work with make less than the $11,000 annually. We’re talking about doubling someone’s income.
Owen: It sounds like– you probably have specific questions about what’s going to happen, but it also seems like part of the excitement is that it’s open-ended. You don’t entirely know what it’s going to mean.
Aisha: We have no idea what’s going to happen. That’s why it’s so exciting and also so scary. Because with this particular population, we have a lot of questions that we’re trying to answer simultaneously. We have the very basic questions of, what will they do with the money? What will the outcomes look like? Will this help individuals begin to free up their bandwidth and be more engaged in our local community and also engage within their own individual lives?
We have those very individual level questions at the very basic aspects of what we plan on evaluating. We also have some larger research questions as it relates to policy, really understanding what the infusion of cash would do for this population of individuals because, like I said, we’re dealing with individuals who are extremely low income, who live in a federally subsidized affordable housing.
They have vouchers. They have housing vouchers, they have SNAP, they have childcare vouchers in some instances. Really beginning to explore what cash does within those systems. That’s problematic because our social service system should not be set up so we’re so punitive where a very small influx of cash can really disrupt your lifestyle as you move towards economic self-sufficiency.
We have those questions as well, but then also on another aspect of it, we have questions as it looks, how will this redefine or define work? What individuals have an opportunity to look for jobs that are more fulfilling and look for opportunities that are more fulfilling rather than just feeling that they have to take a minimum wage job because they have that necessity to work? Really allowing folks to have more freedom and dignity to really look for opportunities that help satisfy their soul.
We have a lot of questions that we’ll be exploring over the course of the year with various partners. For us and for me, it’s really exciting that we have partners who are willing to go with us in uncharted waters and really explore what this means. That’s really exciting to have that level of trust with individuals that we partner with to do this work.
Owen: That uncertainty is why so many people are wary around the idea of basic income, that if you give people a housing voucher, you know what that’s going to be spent on. Whereas if you just give people money, then people’s imaginations can run wild, and that’s scary to the people who are maybe on the other end of that money.
Aisha: But why should it be? Why can’t we trust individuals to know what it is that they need for themselves and trust that if given the opportunity, they will do that? This idea of it being a scary notion, I get it, but in the very basics of it all, I really don’t understand what the rationale is in that fear.
These individuals that we work with, I can only ever speak for my population, the individuals that I work with are hardworking folks who are just trying to make it and who, unfortunately, they are constantly having to climb up a mountain just to live and exist. They know what it is that they need. I do not for one moment think that anyone is want to take this money irresponsibly with it.
If they do go get their nails done, their hair down, or whatever, to me, that’s a form of self-care, and that’s doing what you need to take care of yourself in that particular point in time.
Owen: Sure. It’s okay if people want to do that. Whenever anyone says, “Well people are just going to spend it on drugs and alcohol,” what I would like to say is, well, you’ve got some expendable income. Do you spend it on drugs and alcohol?”
Owen: You’re working with African-American women. This is a small enough trial or experiment that you can be selective about– it’s not a randomized control exactly. You can take this separately or together: why African-Americans, and why women?
Aisha: Yes, a couple of reasons. For us, the African-American women aspect just really is a large part of the population that we already work with. The majority of the individuals within the communities that we serve, that’s our demography. That’s a very basic “why that population?”, but then also, for me, a much richer answer to why that population is one of the other pieces that I will love to see from this work is that we begin to change the narrative around women and social services within this country and really beginning to dispel that myth of the Welfare Queen. A lot of times when we talk about that nasty myth and that nasty ideology, it’s African-American women that we’re talking about.
For me, this really does provide an opportunity to really begin to rewrite how African-American women are viewed within this country and African-American women who live within poverty are viewed within this country who are really just trying to make it and who are trying to put in place the supports that they need for themselves and their families to actualize their dreams. That’s the first thing about African-American.
Then the other part is why mothers. Once again, it goes back to the demography of the population that we primarily work with. The majority of the individuals that we serve at Springboard are women, are mothers, and they are mothers between the ages of 25 and 44 with multiple kids who, once again, are trying to figure out how to survive and thrive, and how to raise their kids and how to keep themselves safe. They’re also at the same time while they’re trying to survive, they’re also dreaming about a greater future for themselves and a greater future for their families, and are really working tirelessly to try to make that dream come into fruition.
Owen: I’ve had a lot of conversations about race and poverty in our social benefits system. Some people say, let’s just talk about poverty, the color of your skin shouldn’t matter. Other people say, no these two things are inherently intertwined and you can’t ignore that. You’re getting into that in your last answer, but how do you approach that question?
Aisha: For me, it’s obvious. If folks have that idea of, why can’t we just talk about poverty without race? To me, that’s a whole lot of privilege rather than an answer. Think that you can have one without the other. Unfortunately, the two within this country are interwoven. We cannot have a conversation about poverty without talking about the systems that have systematically kept an entire population of people impoverished within this country. The two go hand in hand.
The systems and the policies that we have in place were designed with the understanding that we have serious issues with race. As that being the reality, since we have these serious issues with race that garner our social service systems, poverty and race go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. To me, it’s an asinine concept. If it makes you uncomfortable to talk about race in your conversations about poverty, you may need to do a little more homework in understanding.
Owen: Maybe along those lines, what appeals to you about basic income?
Aisha: So much appeals to me about basic income. To me, the most appealing aspect of basic income is the dignity that it would allow our families to have, not having to show up at an office and do paperwork to make it seem that you are trying to make yourself seem worthy for this hand out that’s being blessed upon you from this higher up. The ability to restore dignity to our families, that’s really exciting to me. This aspect that individuals will know when exactly is coming and what exactly it will be. That’s exciting because just the consistency of it is really exciting because so many of our individuals that we work with, the jobs that they have are hourly based jobs. With that, it’s not consistent from week to week or month to month. The inability to plan when you don’t know what your check will look like from week to week is really hard.
Just really allowing this consistency for our families, that’s really exciting to me. Then the other piece is, probably the most exciting of all of this, is really giving the breathing room that our families need to dream and to really think about possibilities, because, unfortunately, time and time again, what we are hearing and learning from our families is that their light is beginning to be diminished just a little bit because of the fact their life is so hard.
It’s really hard for me to envision a world where I’m not allowed the freedom to dream and where I don’t actually believe that my dreams could actually come true. Just allowing for the small moment in time for our families to begin to have the ability to dream again and to really put some steps into place to move towards those dreams.
Owen: Speaking of things that are maybe hard to imagine if you’re not living them, could you say a little bit about what it’s like to be on all these social benefit programs where you have to go in. How much time does that take, and how much of a burden is it on someone to continually re-up on these programs?
Aisha: It takes a lot of time. You could spend an entire day at your Department of Human Services office trying to get your SNAP benefits reinstated. It takes a lot of time as it relates to just this actual physical time of it all. Also there’s a lot of mental acrobats and gymnastics that’s required as well because you’re always trying to make sure that you are staying within whatever guidelines that exist for that particular service that it is that you’re receiving.
That’s all exhausting and time consuming, and you have to think about in a lot of instances are these individuals who may have to go to the Department of Human Services to get their benefits or something reinstated or to make sure that their benefits continue to be put in place. That is the time where you will have, in some instances, you have to take off work. If you were working that day, and we’re talking about folks who have hourly jobs, that’s a day where you may not get those wages. It’s a lot that just goes into all of that.
For us, what we have heard, and I keep saying we’ve heard because so much of what it is that we do is in conversations with our residents, with our families. We don’t do anything without their input. In a lot of times, so much of what we’ve heard from our families is really just the lack of dignity included with those situations of having to go to the Department of Human Services and try to help your caseworker empathize with what it is that you’re experiencing. All of those things are pieces where a little piece of your dignity is taken away.
Owen: Well, those are the questions I had for you. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Aisha: Yes. We’re just really excited about the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. We’re excited that this innovation is coming out of Mississippi, that in a lot of times when you hear about Mississippi, it may not always be something positive regarding the state. We’re excited to be within this state piloting this innovation with extremely low-income African-American mothers. We’re excited about being a part of the guaranteed income community and having an opportunity to learn alongside all of the other amazing partners who are taking the bold risk and big leaps of faith to pilot guaranteed income projects around this country.
Jim: That was Owen talking to Aisha Nyandoro of Springboard To Opportunities.
Owen: I love how they’re really embracing the uncertainty of cash in this program and how she is so excited by the fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen to these women, these families. There’s good reasons to be excited because we have really ample evidence of just how effective cash is and how people, by and large, are quite responsible with it when they are given cash.
Jim: Well, and also how completely ineffective so much of the programs in Mississippi are. I thought– the thing here that I found most inspiring is that the rationale behind this is entirely based on Aisha’s firsthand experiences. She has been working with these people for years and has talked to them to really understand what is it they need to be successful. That is what drove her to this. It wasn’t coming from this kind of pie-in-the-sky, 10,000-foot-view of, “Oh, this should be some future system that we want across the country.” It was responding to a real direct need that she was seeing right in front of her.
Owen: Thinking about this also from the Economic Security Project’s point of view, I’m interested in how focused they are on narrative because 15 people, you’re not going to get a robust data set where you can have a control and all that, but you will get 15 really interesting stories. That, as we’ve discussed before, is such a huge part of bringing this idea into the broader conversation that we’re having.
Jim: Absolutely, that we keep running up against these so deeply ingrained myths in our culture. This idea of the “Welfare Queen” that is not based on any reality but was something that was concocted over time as a way of demonizing people who are receiving support and that Aisha sees this as a direct way to push back on that, that the stories we get here, if we can really lift those up and humanize the people who are receiving the support, that could act as a very visceral and emotional counter to those misconceptions.
Owen: Yes. So much of what she’s contrasting this program with is that support that these people are getting and how much of an emotional toll that it has on them and also that they have to spend the day at the benefits office proving that they are needy enough to get these benefits. Yes, very exciting and looking forward to seeing what comes out of this.
Jim: Yes, we’ll have to keep a close eye and see what stories do emerge.
Alright, that’ll do it for this episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. If you like what you hear, please do rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or the podcast service of your choice. And please, please do tell your friends about this. Any folks you know who you think might be interested in basic income. We’re always trying to reach new people. We’ll talk to you next time.