At first blush, universal basic income (UBI) seems a very attractive idea, especially to a progressive. Yet it suffers from two serious problems. First, the odds are very high that an effort to secure UBI would prove quixotic. Second, and more disconcerting, any possibility of overcoming the formidable obstacles to UBI will almost certainly require a left-right coalition that has significant conservative support — and conservative support for UBI rests on an approach that would increase poverty, rather than reduce it.
The key issues related to UBI include what it would cost, how it would be paid for, and the risks it poses. Let’s take these one at a time.
There are over 300 million Americans today. Suppose UBI provided everyone with $10,000 a year. That would cost more than $3 trillion a year — and $30 trillion to $40 trillion over ten years.
This single-year figure equals more than three-fourths of the entire yearly federal budget — and double the entire budget outside Social Security, Medicare, defense, and interest payments. It’s also equal to close to 100 percent of all tax revenue the federal government collects.
Or, consider UBI that gives everyone $5,000 a year. That would provide income equal to about two-fifths of the poverty line for an individual (which is a projected $12,700 in 2016) and less than the poverty line for a family of four ($24,800). But it would cost as much as the entire federal budget outside Social Security, Medicare, defense, and interest payments.
Paying For It
Where would the money to finance such a large expenditure come from? That it would come mainly or entirely from new taxes isn’t plausible. We’ll already need substantial new revenues in the coming decades to help keep Social Security and Medicare solvent and avoid large benefit cuts in them. We’ll need further tax increases to help repair a crumbling infrastructure that will otherwise impede economic growth. And if we want to create more opportunity and reduce racial and other barriers and inequities, we’ll also need to raise new revenues to invest more in areas like pre-school education, child care, college affordability, and revitalizing segregated inner-city communities.
A UBI that’s financed primarily by tax increases would require the American people to accept a level of taxation that vastly exceeds anything in U.S. history. It’s hard to imagine that such a UBI would advance very far, especially given the tax increases we’ll already need for Social Security, Medicare, infrastructure, and other needs.
UBI’s daunting financing challenges raise fundamental questions about its political feasibility, both now and in coming decades. Proponents often speak of an emerging left-right coalition to support it. But consider what UBI’s supporters on the right advocate. They generally propose UBI as a replacement for the current “welfare state.” That is, they would finance UBI by eliminating all or most programs for people with low or modest incomes.
Consider what that would mean. If you take the dollars targeted on people in the bottom fifth or two-fifths of the population and convert them to universal payments to people all the way up the income scale, you’re redistributing income upward. That would increase poverty and inequality rather than reduce them.
Yet that’s the platform on which the (limited) support for UBI on the right largely rests. It entails abolishing programs from SNAP (food stamps), which largely eliminated the severe child malnutrition found in parts of the Southern “black belt” and Appalachia in the late 1960s, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Section 8 rental vouchers, Medicaid, Head Start, child care assistance, and many others. These programs lift tens of millions of people, including millions of children, out of poverty each year and make tens of millions more less poor.
Some UBI proponents may argue that by ending current programs, we’d reap large administrative savings that we could convert into UBI payments. But that’s mistaken. For the major means-tested programs — SNAP, Medicaid, the EITC, housing vouchers, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and school meals — administrative costs consume only 1 to 9 percent of program resources, as a CBPP analysis explains. Their funding goes overwhelmingly to boost the incomes and purchasing power of low-income families.
Moreover, as the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal has noted, eliminating Medicaid, SNAP, the EITC, housing vouchers, and the like would still leave you far short of what’s needed to finance a meaningful UBI. Would we also end Pell Grants that help low-income students afford college? Would we terminate support for children in foster care, for mental health, and for job training services?
Ed Dolan, who favors UBI, has calculated that we could finance it by using the proceeds from eliminating all means-tested programs outside health care — including Pell Grants, job training, Head Start, free school lunches, and the like, as well as refundable tax credits, SNAP, SSI, low-income housing programs, etc. The result, Dolan found, would be an annual UBI of $1,582 per person, well below the level of support most low-income families (especially working-poor families with children) now receive. The increase in poverty and hardship would be very large.
That’s why the risk is high that under any UBI that could conceivably gain traction politically, tens of millions of poor people would likely end up worse off.
Source: Commentary: Universal Basic Income May Sound Attractive But, If It Occurred, Would Likelier Increase Poverty Than Reduce It | Center on Budget and Policy Priorities