The movement for a basic income guarantee (BIG) has come a long way since the USBIG Network was founded in 1999 as the US affiliate of BIEN, and the first North American Basic Income Guarantee (NABIG) Congress was held in 2002. The most dramatic changes have occurred within the last two years, in the wake of Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign, and the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes were echoed in this year’s virtual NABIG Congress—the biggest ever, with 777 people registered at last count.
Prior to the Yang campaign, the movement for a basic income guarantee in the United States consisted mostly of small volunteer organizations like USBIG, which promoted an annual Congress, and for the last decade rotated responsibility for this with the Basic Income Canada Network [BICN]. Attendance was typically a couple of hundred people in recent years. Although in Canada there were some prominent elected political leaders supporting basic income, such as Senator Hugh Segal, and enough political support to launch the Ontario basic income pilot, in the United States basic income remained on the margins of politics, in sharp contrast to the 1960s and 1970s when guaranteed income was debated in presidential campaigns and the federal government funded large random control trials of negative income tax schemes. One effort in the early 2000s by a couple of USBIG board members to get a bill introduced into Congress got two sponsors but was never reported out of committee. Growing international publicity from pilot projects in Africa, India, Canada, and Finland, and a national referendum in Switzerland helped to generate interest in the United States among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and visionary leaders at the municipal level such as Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton, CA and Aisha Nyandoro of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust in Mississippi. Some new organizations such as the Economic Security Project helped to push these developments along with financial support and publicity, and convened the Guaranteed Income Community of Practice.
Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign brought universal basic income into the mainstream national conversation. In the wake of that campaign thousands of Yang supporters and others interested in the idea of basic income formed new organizations such as Humanity Forward and the Income Movement (IM), which now have tens of thousands of members, at least an order of magnitude greater than what preceded.
The COVID-19 pandemic opened a door to unconditional and universal cash payments. Three rounds of one-off relief checks went to most households regardless of need. And unemployment compensation was extended in duration, eligibility, and amount. A US poll in September 2020 reported “76% support for regular payments that continue until the economic crisis is over.” In this context, more radical proposals emerged in the Congress, such as Rep. Maxine Waters’s proposal in the House Financial Services committee to pay “$2,000 a month in cash payments to most adults, and $1,000 a month for each child, for the duration of the pandemic”, a near universal basic income. In the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, the Child Tax Credit was augmented, and made fully refundable without a work requirement, making it in effect a negative income tax for families with children, lifting millions more out of poverty. Removal of the work condition marks a major departure from welfare policy in the United States, and a step toward one crucial feature of a basic income, unconditionality. The Income Movement and others are now campaigning to make the temporary CTC extension permanent. And there is significant support in the US Congress for doing this.
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