Catastrophes Require Cash

By Stacey Rutland

The past few weeks have brought a barrage of devastation in the form of various disasters — from wildfires raging in Lake Tahoe and outside of Denver to Hurricane Ida’s deadly flooding charting a path from Louisiana to New York.

While they range in how they show and where, these catastrophes have a lot in common — they are all related to climate change and so will only grow worse in coming years, and they all leave survivors with huge economic losses. They also expose the deep inequality that pervades our country, with wealthier residents able to evacuate to hotels and absorb the financial shock that comes from losing weeks of work. For those who live in poverty or on its brink, a huge portion of the American population, the situation is far more than an inconvenience. As the New York Times reports, many residents in New Orleans didn’t have enough money to evacuate and had no access to clean water and no electricity to even cook food with.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed how quickly a health crisis can lead to an economic crisis. The same lessons can be applied here — a climate crisis is also worsening an economic crisis. And like the pandemic, a basic income would better prepare people for the varied financial costs that come with emergencies. It would also help shift a dynamic that has existed for far too long in this country in which the poor and middle class are left to absorb the shock of crises while the wealthy remain unscathed.

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We’ve seen how this works several times — from Dolly Parton’s monthly cash stipends to victims of Tennessee wildfires to Bethenny Frankel’s distribution of cash and cash cards in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. As Mayors for a Guaranteed Income member Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard of Mt. Vernon, NY says: “cash is the currency of urgency.”

This is not to say that a basic income is a silver bullet — it will certainly not solve climate change and it cannot replace the essential necessities of food, water, shelter needed to survive. But, it is direct, effective and impactful.

While the examples of Parton and Frankel show how cash can assist local communities and economies after a disaster, imagine what it could do before one. Shift workers could afford to take time off work to travel to stay with family and wait out the storm. A family living in poverty could fill up the gas tank and pay for an extended stay hotel. Those who need to stay in a devastated area for essential work that is too often underpaid could afford to buy a generator to ensure they are able to prepare food and run the air conditioning.

Photo by John Middelkoop

Our world has fundamentally changed into one where these “once-in-a-lifetime” crises are becoming more like once-in-a-year. We need a 21st century social contract to match that must include a host of policies and protections to create a level playing field in this country. A basic income is a critical place to start.

Stacey Rutland is Founder of Income Movement, the organization working on building a broad grassroots coalition in the fight for basic income.

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