Universal Basic Income: A solution to wealth inequality?

By Sustainable Economies Law Center High School Summer Intern, Ciara Smith

In today’s society the idea of distributing a universal basic income can seem like a utopian ideal. In most cases it isn’t taken seriously because people are scared of change or fear such an idea would not work effectively. If you give a homeless man money you leave him with the choice to buy whatever he wants with it. It was your money so you want some say in what he does with it, but you don’t have any say in the matter and that, for me, is the hard part.

With a universal basic income, people are given money to live off and the freedom to choose how they spend it. Universal basic income is a scary subject in that way but lawmakers and policy advocates have been discussing the topic recently as a potential solution to income inequality. The idea behind providing people with a universal basic income is to make it possible for everyone to live in the world’s richest economy without starving.

Unlike popular belief, all men are not created equal in the sense that we don’t have the same opportunities. We may have similar genetic traits and be a part of the human race but some people are “made” or born with luxuries that others aren’t afforded. Some people are born into wealth, with houses, inherited businesses, etc. People without the tools and resources that others are given have to work for them. It’s not as easy as saying it; working your way to the top is hard especially when someone else is first in line. If someone's grandparents were working on a project and it was passed down from two generations to them and you suddenly start working on a similar project from scratch, it is more than likely that their project will be ahead of yours because they have had time to build their capital. This is why wealthier individuals can easily thrive in our economy: they have the resources to excel and to carry them through the difficult times. Not everyone gets those things handed to them on a silver platter.

An increasingly popular solution for this is to create a universal basic income, which is an income provided by a government so all people can afford basic life necessities such as food, shelter, clothing, and health care. Some proposals for universal basic income would give money only to people who need it most. Such proposals ensure everyone gets enough money to live off of based on the amount of money they already earn or savings they already have, and the number of children or other people in their family. Other universal basic income proposals call for the same basic salary to be paid to all citizens, regardless of their financial circumstances. Proponents of the “same salary for all” model argue that government agencies that provide need-based benefits are inefficient and costly. Proponents of need-based incomes argue that such models are more appropriate and cost effective given drastic wealth inequality.

Universal basic income has already been discussed and tried in certain areas. Examples of universal basic income have been found or soon will be found in cities or provinces in Canada, the Netherlands, and Germany, among other nations.

From 1974 to 1979, in Dauphin, Canada, a city project provided low-income residents basic annual incomes. However, in 1979 the project was shut down due to a more conservative government taking power. The program called for a study of the effects of the program to be conducted, however this was never completed. According to some individual recipients of the basic income, it was very effective at poverty alleviation. Read more about it in The Huffington Post Canada here.

In the Netherlands, an experiment will take place next year that will allow 250 Dutch citizens who currently receive government benefits to receive a flat monthly paycheck of €960. Read more about it in The Atlantic here.

Even Martin Luther King advocated for a universal basic income. As Jordan Weissman says, also writing for The Atlantic, “One of the more under-appreciated aspects of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy is that by the end of his career, he had fashioned himself into a crusader against poverty, not just among blacks, but all Americans.”

Recently in the United States, the concept of universal basic income has been discussed by scholars and activists like Peter Barnes in numerous books and journal articles (and even a community conversation at SELC’s office last year), and most recently in the Movement for Black Lives policy platform (which the Sustainable Economies Law Center just endorsed), which calls for the same basic income for all with an extra pool of benefits for Black Americans. We are eager to see how these experiments and conversations unfold.



Ciara Smith is an 11th grader at McClymonds High School in Oakland. She interned at Sustainable Economies Law Center this summer through the Center for Youth Development through Law, a collaboration between UC Berkeley School of Law and East Bay public schools.

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