WASHINGTON — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez couldn't distance herself fast enough last week from a promise on her website that the Green New Deal would take care of people who are "unwilling to work." First her team falsely claimed it was doctored by the GOP, then said it was part of a draft version that was mistakenly released.
But advocates for the ambitious program, known as universal basic income (UBI), say paying everyone isn't a typo or a bug — it's the whole point. Their vision of a country that takes care of everyone’s basic needs is gaining traction from socialist gatherings in Brooklyn to the Silicon Valley tech futurist set.
But with three simple words, Ocasio-Cortez exposed just how difficult the idea will be to sell to the public.
Critics turned “unwilling to work” into the plan’s unofficial and unwanted tagline. It was repeated ad nauseum in conservative media circles. The trolly site unwillingtowork.org encourages you to join the unwilling and be handed a new high-paying job, or “paid passions” as the page announces they will now be called.
The reaction was not a surprise to universal basic income advocates, who say Republicans have always fought wealth redistribution programs. But they saw a chance for Democrats to double down.
“This idea that somehow people who are unwilling to work are bad or lazy is a horrible idea. Because whenever there’s a job offer and somebody doesn’t want it, what you have is a dispute about wages and working conditions,” said Karl Widerquist, a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar. “We need to change the discussion, reframe it, go on offense.”
Instead of trying to flip the switch from lazy workers to cheap employers, Democrats ran for the hills. The drafters of the Green New Deal dismissed the wording as an editing error in an early draft. Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff said it was not in regard to universal basic income but pensions for coal miners. Even defenders of the Green New Deal’s other hugely ambitious proposals dismissed universal basic income.
“I think it’s a nonstarter. It’s not just a political barrier, it’s substantively dumb to pay people who are unwilling to work. It’s offensive to most Americans who are working really hard,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, an ardent supporter of the Green New Deal.
For proponents, it’s a frustrating blow. Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and long shot presidential candidate from New York who is running on a universal basic income platform, said the policy got caught up in the partisan media swirl that surrounds Ocasio-Cortez. He said the language was not only damaging, but it was an inaccurate portrayal of the policy — giving every American a subsidy (proposals usually sit around $1,000 per person per month) to help cover basic needs.
“It is unfortunate. It does make it easier to try and portray [UBI] as extreme,” he said. Ocasio Cortez’s office declined an interview request.
Like universal health care, universal basic income is one of the burgeoning policy ideas on the modern left. It’s popular among tech futurists and billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson. There’s real money flowing into it as well. Starting this year, a privately funded experiment in California will provide 3,000 people with $1,000 per month, no strings attached. Smaller studies are being launched in Jackson, Mississippi, and Stockton, California.
But while Medicare for All has become an increasingly mainstream tenet of the Democratic Party, and many presidential candidates have endorsed it or something like it, universal basic income is getting no traction whatsoever. In the wake of the “unwilling to work” debacle, not one prominent Democrat stood up for it.
“They backed off as soon as somebody challenged them on it,” said Widerquist. “They weren’t ready.”
But those who support the policy see it not just as a good idea, but one that is inevitable. Their argument goes that automation has led to huge savings but those savings are concentrated at the top, while more and more jobs are eliminated. As society grows increasingly wealthy but with fewer and fewer jobs, there’s going to need to be some program to make sure everyone’s basic needs are covered.
As job scarcity rises, employers can offer lower wages and fewer benefits. Proponents argue that universal basic income is needed to restore some leverage to workers because right now their only alternative to taking a bad job is abject poverty. “It’s really horrific to use the threat of poverty and homelessness as a work incentive,” said Widerquist. “That’s monstrous.”
But making this pitch in a country that has long equated value with work is no easy task. Yang is running for president on a platform of providing everyone $1,000 per month. He frames the payments as a “dividend” and says that helps to sell the idea, but it’s difficult to break the association many Americans have that wealth is directly tied to work.
Still, he thinks it’s the only logical outcome for the economy. As the market moves toward machines, artificial intelligence, and software, Yang says there’s going to need to be a non-market way to value people’s time.
Basic income trials have been tried in places like Kenya, Canada, and Finland. While there’s still a lack of conclusive data, the Finnish study found the payments improved the quality of life of participants and reduced their stress. They found no impact on whether people sought or found employment.
Another group that wants to see Democrats take on universal basic income is Republicans. In talks with GOP lawmakers they described the issue as a political minefield for Democrats, and said pursuing it would be a complete misread of the electorate. Plus the attacks all but write themselves. “If Democrats get everybody in the country who doesn’t want to work, and we get everybody who goes to work every day, we’re going to win a lot of elections,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz.
For now, most Democrats are heeding this advice and staying far away from universal basic income. While some will speak about it positively, there’s no expectation that it’s going to be pursued any time in the next few years — or even the next few decades.
It’s just not a realistic pitch to the American public right now, said Sen. Chris Murphy. But he added that universal basic income, or something like it, is something Democrats should start talking about now because it’s going to be necessary within 50 years.
“My sense is the public’s not ready for that conversation yet, so we have to be careful,” he said. “You’ve got to do a lot of work with the public before they’re ready to wrap their arms around something like that. I think it’s decades.”