When the idyllic upstate city of Hudson, New York, launches its basic-income pilot program in late September, it will become one of the smallest U.S. cities to embrace a policy once seen as far-fetched or radical.
“Basic-income” programs — designed to dole out direct cash payments to large swaths of people, no strings attached — were, until earlier this year, largely the realm of Washington, D.C., policy wonks and West Coast futurists.
But amid the pandemic and a global recession, both basic income and a basket of related policies have gained unprecedented momentum, surfacing everywhere from Capitol Hill to community Zoom meetings in cities like Hudson.
At their most targeted, such programs essentially function as a type of cash welfare, providing a flexible, fungible benefit to low-income Americans. In broader and more ambitious proposals, so-called universal basic-income programs would send cash to everyone regardless of income level — a feature intended, advocates say, to promote consumer spending, lessen the stigma of welfare and protect all workers against future economic upheaval.
Critics from both sides of the political spectrum have historically challenged such programs on the grounds that they cost too much money or don’t always reach the neediest recipients. But since the pandemic began decimating entire sectors of the U.S. economy, that logic has shifted.
In June, a coalition of 11 Democratic mayors from across the country announced the launch of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a national campaign that plans to invest in basic-income pilots and lobby for related policies at the state and federal levels.
Fourteen additional mayors have since signed on to the project, representing cities as diverse as Shreveport, Louisiana; Holyoke, Massachusetts; and Los Angeles. In July, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey pledged $3 million to the group to pay for future pilots. Writing in Time to announce their coalition, the mayors called basic income “a policy solution that is as bold as it is innovative and as simple as it is ambitious.”
In Hudson, two nonprofits — with the blessing of the mayor and the county social services department — plan to mail monthly $500 checks to 25 people, chosen by lottery, for the next five years.
Further afield, nonprofits and volunteer networks also have given millions of dollars to hundreds of thousands of laid-off American workers as part of charitable cash-transfer programs. While such one-off grants are not “basic income” in the classic sense, advocates say they still express a new willingness to embrace unconditional cash payments as a part of the safety net.
Several states, including New York, California and Pennsylvania, have passed or are considering bills that would refund more cash to low-income workers by way of an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit.
Meanwhile in Washington, six separate bills in Congress would direct new cash aid to Americans, whether through a second round of one-off stimulus checks or a series of regular payments. The first round of stimulus, authorized in March, prevented national poverty levels from surging, two studies suggest, and was championed by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
Now the challenge, for long-time basic-income proponents, is translating this sudden spike of interest into permanent changes to the safety net.