A Basic Income Means Basic Dignity

By Stacey Rutland

As an organization dedicated to the creation of a basic income for all who need it, we’ve been thrilled to see the growing interest in the concept over the past two years. From the presidential stage to the proliferation of dozens of pilots across the country, the idea of unconditional cash as a tool to both strengthen our economy and support our people is no longer on the fringes of public opinion. In fact, a recent survey by Data for Progress and Mayors for a Guaranteed Income found that a bipartisan majority of voters support the idea, and that support grows exponentially higher among Democrats and people of color. At this point, not supporting basic income is what’s fringe.

But like any idea that’s gained rapid popularity, there are missteps around those looking to embrace something exciting and newsworthy while not actually understanding the beliefs core to its support. We see this with a new program touted as Universal Basic Income in Phoenix. Called the Financial Assistance for Phoenix Families Program and funded with federal pandemic-relief aid, the pilot will give 1,000 recipients $1,000 monthly for a year.

Downtown Phoenix. Photo by James Day

Now, we love the idea of a federally-funded pilot providing basic income. But as reported by the Phoenix New Times, the program has some very important distinctions compared to other basic and guaranteed income pilots:

“The payments will be issued on a debit card that families can use to purchase anything except for alcohol, tobacco, and lottery tickets. The cards will be programmed to decline purchases of those prohibited items, according to Jeanine L’Ecuyer, a spokesperson for Mayor Kate Gallego. Recipients of the payments also won’t be able to use the cards to withdraw cash.

If you’re reading this post, you likely already know the issues with calling such a program “basic income” — the very essence of the concept is that it is no strings attached. Restricting purchases and not allowing the funds to be used as cash are more like heavy-duty ropes than strings. Not only does this go against the trust and dignity inherent to a basic income, it’s also extremely short-sighted. Results from Stockton’s pilot showed that less than 1% of money was used on tobacco or alcohol. Additionally, the inability to withdraw cash means that some of a family’s biggest expenses cannot be covered with the money. How can you pay rent or a babysitter — two high-expense basic needs that don’t traditionally accept debit cards — without being able to take money out of your bank account?

As Aisha Nyandoro, founder of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust guaranteed income program, told NPR’s Phoenix affiliate: “To me, cash without restrictions is just that, it is cash without restrictions.”

These kinds of restrictions applied to monthly direct cash is not exclusive to local programs. Senator Manchin’s insistence that the federal Child Tax Credit (CTC) expansion only include families with working parents are efforts at the national level to strip away the dignity, autonomy and trust that is foundational to the philosophy behind basic income.

Phoenix is still in the first phases of setting up its pilot, so there is a chance they may decide to shift the program so that it is in line with the tenets of basic income rather than just an expanded version of food stamps. If you want to encourage the city to adopt a true version of basic income instead of another program to penalize and judge those in need, you can contact Mayor Katie Gallego via this form, or by calling 602–262–7111.

If you want to let your Congress people know that they should challenge Senator Manchin’s ideas around work requirement for the expanded CTC, give them a call here.

Stacey Rutland is founder of Income Movement.