Liberals have an uncanny talent. They shoot themselves in the foot trying to help the less fortunate; their hearts bleed out of the wound; leaving a blood trail for right-winged vultures to reframe good intention as folly. Such I fear, may be the fate of Cambridge RISE, my city’s pilot program for UBI (Universal Basic Income).
Universal Basic Income is a simple concept. Every person receives a direct payment simply for being here. UBI is radical, in that it anticipates the fall of capitalism by acknowledging that humans are no longer required as means of production. That our economy is so efficient (i.e. automated), labor is optional. The direct payment is barely enough for individual sustenance, but folks who prefer not to work could pool resources, thus freeing themselves from economic pursuit.
In UBI utopia, everyone has the security of a guaranteed minimum; social welfare systems like food stamps, Section 8, welfare, and unemployment evaporate as individuals spend money as they see fit; people gravitate to innovative work while robots handle the mundane stuff; personal expression and creativity abound.
In UBI hell, everyone drinks and drugs away their monthly check and society collapses.
As a man of hope in human capability, I am a fan of UBI, and applaud any steps we take in that direction. Unfortunately, no one’s about to implement UBI at scale. However, the idea is getting enough attention for pilot programs. Cambridge, being both liberal and rich, is a great place to kick one off.
Thus, Cambridge RISE. One-hundred-twenty families, selected by lottery, will receive $500 per month for a period of eighteen months, no strings attached. The pilot is a far cry from UBI: the amount per family is far too small; and the time limit extinguishes actual income security. Still, it will make a difference for recipients and perhaps the city can glean useful data in how people spend the money / change their lives.
It doesn’t seem right to hold a general lottery: so many Cantabrigians have more than enough. So, the city limits lottery applicants to families making less than 80% AMI (AMI=Area Median Income, which in pricey Cambridge is $96,250 for a family of four). That seems right to me; the idea behind UBE is not only for poor people.
The City also limits applicants to families with children under 18. I also agree this is also a desirable criterion.
Third, the applicants must be single-caretaker households.
This requirement makes no sense to me. In fact, it immediately raises that ugly specter in my head: reverse-discrimination. Why should a multi-caretaker household that meets the income and child guidelines be exempt from this program?
I write my favorite Cambridge City Councilor, Alanna Mallon, who offers a gracious reply. She cites the recent Cambridge Community Foundation report that 70% of Cambridge families in the bottom quintile are single-caretaker households. She cites targeted pilot programs from other areas of the country. She does not, however, address why the program denies application to the other 30% of bottom quintile families simply because they are headed by multi-caretakers.
It’s easy to imagine multi-caretaker families who could benefit from this program: families with disabled adults; multi-generational households. It is also too, too easy to see how the program will become an target for anyone to proclaim that by discriminating against traditional two-parent families, Cambridge RISE incentivizes single parenting.
If we only used the income and child requirements, a large majority of this lottery-based program recipients would still be single-caretaker households (statistically: 70%). We’d avoid accusations of providing special treatment to families who, for whatever reason, have only one caretaker. We could gather data on how a wider range of recipients use their payment.
Instead we have created a pilot program whose fundamental design enables opponents to undermine its credibility, regardless of data or outcomes. The City deserves a more representative pilot program. UBI deserves pilot programs that better reflect how it might actually succeed. And multi-caretaker families deserve the same —not more, not less—opportunities available to single-caretaker households.
(Note: Images from Cambridge RISE website.)