The Basic Income Has Its Moment

Foreign Affairs

By Evelyn Forget

A basic income—a regular, unconditional payment distributed by the government—is an old idea. Thomas More wrote about it during the Renaissance in Utopia, and Thomas Paine preached its merits when the United States was in its infancy. But the idea never gained mainstream acceptance.

Although social scientists had long been testing the effects of a basic income with pilot projects around the world, it was easy to imagine that the governments permitting these experiments hoped that public enthusiasm might die out by the time the results were compiled.

After the 2008 financial crisis, the International Labor Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Health Organization, and, especially, the World Bank showed some interest in a basic income. Never, however, did the idea make the leap from white papers to real-world policy.

In the United States, the most prominent advocate of a basic income was the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. As a solution to structural unemployment caused by automation, Yang proposed that every American adult receive a monthly check of $1,000. He called it the “Freedom Dividend,” and it formed a major part of his platform. But on February 11, having received just 2.8 percent of the votes in the New Hampshire primary, Yang dropped out of the race. The lack of interest in his idea didn’t seem surprising. In most high-income countries, it was fair to say that a basic income had a cult following, popular only among the kinds of people who read speculative fiction and wore T-shirts sporting jokes disguised as mathematical equations. It was something of a fringe interest.

Then came the pandemic. In March and April, after COVID-19 forced governments to shut down entire economies, leaders across the world realized that existing benefit programs weren’t up to the task of helping people meet their basic needs while not working.

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