Basic income legislation is on the table. Let’s learn from the mistakes of the 1970s, not repeat them.

by Stacey Rutland

Last week, Nancy Pelosi made modern history by being the first Speaker of the House in nearly 50 years to mention guaranteed income by name as a solution worth exploring during an economic crisis. The last time the nation considered a basic income on this scale was in the 70s. The idea first came to national prominence when Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for a guaranteed income in 1968, with the goal of reducing poverty. Then, in 1972, Democratic Presidential hopeful George McGovern proposed what he called a “demogrant” that would pay every American $1,000 a year, regardless of income, job status, or household size.

Ironically, it was not the Republicans who launched the first attack against the idea of a demogrant: it was Democrat Hubert Humphrey, McGovern’s challenger in the primary. Humphrey claimed during a televised debate that a UBI would increase taxes on the middle class. The claim was categorically false, but McGovern failed to defend it effectively, and the damage was done. Americans began to retract support for a policy they worried would cost them money. Republican candidate Richard Nixon, who ultimately went on to win the general election against McGovern later that year, echoed the skepticism initiated by Democratic opponents. In addition, when it came time for Congress to vote for legislation outlining a version of guaranteed income, many Democrats who supported the idea voted against it because it “did not go far enough”. These actions from both the left and the right cemented guaranteed income’s place in 20th century American history as an idea that came and went.

Americans today have witnessed the dawning of a new century, a new era of politics and technological advancement, and a new global pandemic. The need for UBI has never been more clear. However, they say that history repeats itself, and this cliche has never been more relevant than in our current day discussion of universal basic income. When Andrew Yang was running in the 2020 Presidential Primary, his Democratic opponents criticized the idea of universal basic income much in the same way that it was criticized in the 1970s. It was deemed to be both too expensive and not politically viable, two arguments which have been proven moot in the wake of a global economic crisis. Following Nancy Pelosi’s mention that a “guaranteed income may be worth looking at” as a response to our current recession, conservative leadership is now using these same arguments against the idea. In addition, and perhaps more surprisingly, a division within the universal basic income community has sprung up over the past few weeks. Many are critiquing Pelosi’s newfound openness to basic income, rather than applauding it. Others are not supporting some monthly cash payment proposals by Congress because they “do not go far enough”.

The effect of these attacks from the left and right are certain to have the same outcome they had in the 1970s — we are on the path to having basic income legislation killed yet again.

While focusing on critique may be valid in “normal” legislative circumstances, where months or years are at our disposal to debate the merits of policy implementation (or the messenger proposing it), Income Movement feels to do so in this moment is short-sighted. Congress is urgently working through the creation of the next CARES Act. With Pelosi and so many others in Congress talking about guaranteed income and supporting proposals that outline monthly payments to millions of people during this crisis, this is the moment to unilaterally bolster and applaud those in Congress who are open to or are actively supporting guaranteed income during this crisis, even if we don’t agree with their politics in other areas. We should reserve criticism specifically for those who are putting up roadblocks to legislation that designed to give money directly to people.

Political progress on any significant economic or cultural shift does not follow a straight line — instead, it looks more like the zig zag approach used in sailing known as tacking. When sailing into the wind, sailboats shift right and left in order to make forward progress, less they get caught in the headwinds and pushed backwards. While the progress the boat makes may be slower than if the boat were sailing with the wind, the ship is still headed in the right direction.

We face strong headwinds when it comes to passing a permanent UBI. But we know that monthly payments to millions right now will not only provide people with the critical support they need, but open hearts and minds to the idea of UBI that have previously been closed. We must support and applaud those who are leading the conversation and promoting legislation for basic income during this crisis. Our unity will increase the chance of the passage of an emergency guaranteed income. And it will accelerate the growth of the basic income movement as a whole.

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