Critical Race Theory, Guaranteed Income, and Basic Income

Michael Lewis

I’ve been following debates about basic income, guaranteed income, and similar policies for a long time. This semester, for the first time, I’m teaching a course called The Critical Race Theory Debate and Public Policy. This is why, while listening to a recent episode of this Forward podcast, my ears perked up. Carly Reilly and Zach Graumann were discussing the Critical Race Theory (CRT) “controversy,” “moral panic,” pick whichever term you like, and suggested at one point that a basic income (BI) would be a way to address some of the concerns of proponents of CRT. Unfortunately, they didn’t spend a lot of time developing this point, but quickly moved on to other things. What I want to do in this piece is dwell a bit longer on the possible relationship between BI and guaranteed income (GI), on the one hand, and CRT, on the other. Given, however, that one of the things currently being fought about in the U.S. is whether critics of CRT are really criticizing CRT, I’ll start by saying what I mean by “Critical Race Theory.”

In the course I’m teaching, “Critical Race Theory” refers to the following: a framework for studying law and public policies where the focus is on the role laws and policies have played or continue to play in constructing racial categories as well as promoting and reinforcing racial inequality. This is also how I’m going to be using “CRT” in this post. My course is, more or less, divided into three parts: 1) the context within which CRT emerged 2) the basic tenets of CRT, along with criticisms of those tenets, and 3) the degree to which CRT might help illuminate a number of current policy debates. Here I want to focus on one of the key themes of CRT: the idea that racism can be structural, institutional, or systemic.

Although those in the circles I travel in see it as almost axiomatic that systemic racism exists, there’s actually a fair amount of disagreement, among members of the general U.S. public, about this. For example, in a 2020 poll, Ipsos found that (using the racial/ethnic terms from the survey) 50% of Whites, 67% of Asians, 69% of Hispanics, and 83% of Blacks believed that institutional racism exists in the U.S. What I’ll have to say in this piece is directed at those who do believe there’s such a thing as systemic racism. As I did with CRT, I now want to clarify what I mean by “systemic racism.”

In a sentence, “systemic racism,” as I see it, refers to the unjustified application of race neutral rules or practices which result in racially disparate outcomes. Whether such outcomes are intended or unintended doesn’t matter to whether such an application qualifies as systemic racism. I should probably say more about two terms used in this definition: “race neutral” and “unjustified.”

All I mean by “race neutral” is that the rule or practice makes no explicit mention of or reference to race. The use of “unjustified” is meant to ward off a definition that may be too broad. I can’t recall the number of articles I’ve read about the small proportion of Blacks with degrees in STEM fields, but here’s one.

Suppose a firm will only hire people to design bridges if they have at least a four-year degree in structural engineering. Given the statistics highlighted in the article linked to in the previous paragraph, it wouldn’t surprise me if this resulted in racial disparities in “representation” at this firm. However, since most of us want the bridges we drive across to bear the weight of our cars and think that having formal training in structural engineering may increase the probability that one is able to design such a bridge, we might think this kind of “credentialism” is justified. Thus, perhaps this sort of thing shouldn’t fall under the concept of “systemic racism.” I hasten to add, though, that this wouldn’t mean that there haven’t been other acts of systemic racism that have resulted in the relatively small proportion of Blacks in STEM fields.

Here’s an “old school” example of systemic racism I think almost everyone, at this point, can agree on. In order for someone to be able to vote in the Jim Crow South they had to pay a poll tax or pass a literacy test. Assuming that a person doesn’t need to be able to read or pay a tax in order to know who they’d like to see represent them in government, these practices were unjustified. And I’m sure practically every historian would tell us that these rules disadvantaged Southern Blacks to a greater degree than they did Southern Whites.

Consider another example closer to cash assistance policy. The Social Security Act of 1935 enacted the public retirement program known today as “Social Security.” In order, upon retirement, for someone to qualify for benefits, they had to work in a job that was covered by the program. Jobs in agriculture and domestic work weren’t covered, meaning that those who held such jobs weren’t eligible for benefits after retirement. The rules about eligible jobs made no explicit mention of race. Yet these were jobs held by a disproportionate number of Blacks. So, it turned out that the rules governing which jobs were covered by the program worked to the disadvantage of Blacks more so than of whites.

As I’ve thought more about the concept of “systemic racism,” I’ve thought of another notion which turns the idea of systemic racism on its head. I’m, for lack of a better term, going to call it “systemic racial equity.” Here’s what I mean by that term: the justified application of race neutral rules or practices which result in racially disparate outcomes in favor of historically or currently disadvantaged racial groups. Whether such outcomes are intended or unintended doesn’t matter to whether such an application qualifies as systemic racial equity.

What does all this talk about systemic racism and systemic racial equity have to do with GI and BI?

First, let me focus on GI. As it’s currently used, the term “Guaranteed Income” seems to be a catch all for any kind of non-work conditioned, targeted cash assistance, whether targeting is based on income plus assets, income only, or even membership in certain racial or gender identity groups. And “work” in “non-work conditioned” refers to the sale of labor in some formal labor market. For the purposes of this piece, when I use the term “guaranteed income” or “GI,” I’m referring only to income plus assets targeting (also called “means-testing”) or income only targeting. This is in keeping with the idea of systemic racial equity, which, recall, is based on race neutral rules.

Jeremy Rosen of The Shriver Center on Poverty Law has this to say about GI:

“It’s time to ensure the financial security of all families by providing a guaranteed income. A guaranteed income program provides recurring cash payments, with no strings attached, to a targeted group of people. Unlike Universal Basic Income (UBI), a guaranteed income program channels money to people who truly need it. As a result, guaranteed income programs are more effective at reducing the racial wealth gap and increasing equity.”

In a press release about a new GI proposal she worked on, economist Naomi Zewde said the following about GI:

“Black and Latino communities have disproportionately suffered from the health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and have also been hit hardest by the economic devastation from the resulting recession,” …. “But these inequalities existed long before the pandemic. A Guaranteed Income for the 21st Century would ensure that everyone has the resources needed to meet their basic needs, prevent the pain that comes with poverty, and provide economic security and social mobility.”

This same press release tells us the following:

“The proposal offers lawmakers a blueprint for reforming the U.S. tax code to send monthly payments to every adult in America earning less than $50,000, which would end poverty and lift more people into the middle class, while helping to close the racial income and wealth gaps.

The GI proposals being referred to in these quotations, as far as I could tell, are income targeted but make no mention of race. That is, benefits wouldn’t only go to those of a specific race. Yet notice the claims in these quotes that a GI would, “close the racial income and wealth gaps,” would help Black and Latinx communities who have, “disproportionately suffered from the health impacts of the Covid 19 pandemic,” or that, “guaranteed income programs are more effective at reducing the racial wealth gap….” Since a GI would provide people with income, while wealth is one’s net worth, it isn’t clear to me how a GI would directly address the racial wealth gap, although there may be mechanisms by which it could do this indirectly. But let’s put this aside and focus on the claim that a race neutral income policy would especially benefit Black and Latino folks. This sounds like a claim that GI would promote systemic racial equity. Why might that be?

The reason a GI could be a source of systemic racial equity is that People of Color (POC) in the U.S. are more likely to be poor or low-income than are Whites. This isn’t to say that there aren’t poor or low-income Whites. Obviously there are. But poor and low-income Whites make up a smaller proportion of all Whites than poor and low-income Blacks make up of all Blacks.

So, a policy, like GI, which targeted poor or low-income persons would be more likely to benefit POC than Whites. I hasten to add that no GI proponent I know of claims that a GI would solve all of our racial problems. But a GI could still promote systemic racial equity even if it didn’t do that, just as Jim Crow Era voting restrictions promoted systemic racism even though they didn’t exhaust all forms of oppression faced by Blacks at the time. Let me now turn to BI.

First, I should define what I mean by “basic income” or “BI:” it’s an amount of money which people deemed members of some political jurisdiction would periodically receive, on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement. As I see it, another name for BI is “Universal Basic Income” (UBI). The “without means-test” condition tells us that, unlike a GI, a BI wouldn’t be targeted only to those who “needed it.” Instead, everyone would receive it, regardless of income or the value of any assets they owned. But, as will become clear in a moment, things are actually a bit more complicated than that.

Let’s go back to what Jeremy Rosen said:

“…. Unlike Universal Basic Income (UBI), a guaranteed income program channels money to people who truly need it. As a result, guaranteed income programs are more effective at reducing the racial wealth gap and increasing equity.”

This passage makes it sound like it’s a forgone conclusion that a GI would be better at promoting systemic racial equity than a BI would be. It isn’t. This is where the complications I mentioned a moment ago come in.

Although BI would be an amount of money given to everyone regardless of income, no proponents of BI I know of advocate that this policy be implemented in conjunction with abolition of the U.S. personal income tax. That is, all proponents I know of believe we should maintain such a tax. In order to consider the degree to which a BI could be a source of systemic racial equity, one would need to consider how a BI would work along with the income tax. That’s because even though everyone would receive a BI in a gross sense, not everyone would do so in a net sense. Some would receive the full level of the BI, others would pay enough in taxes that they would net less than that full amount, and there would be some who would net $0 in basic income because they’d owe more in taxes than the level of the BI.

Now it’s true that although progressive, the personal income tax isn’t as progressive as it could be, and there are a number of tax deductions and credits which allow higher income people to reduce their tax liability. But the progressivity of taxes and the types of deductions and credits which allow people to avoid paying them are political decisions. A more progressive tax system with fewer loopholes would mean that the primary beneficiaries of the full amount of the BI would be poor and low-income people. That is, a BI in conjunction with certain tax rules could be designed to prioritize POC just as much as a GI could be. But there are other matters which would determine the degree to which a GI or BI would promote systemic racial equity.

There are currently a number of social programs in the U.S. which benefit POC, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). So, the question of how a GI or BI would interact with the current system arises. That’s because the nature of the interaction would help determine how much a GI or BI would systemically benefit POC. To take the extreme case, if all other social programs were abolished and replaced with a BI, that might not be so great for POC. Some GI supporters are quite clear regarding their views about this question. For example, Mayors for a Guaranteed Income tell us that a GI would supplement, not replace the existing social safety net ( In what I’ve seen, BI supporters typically haven’t been as clear, although some have at least tried to raise the relevant issues.

Another thing which would matter to how much a GI or BI could systemically advantage POC would be whether benefits would be provided through the IRS. All GI proposals I’ve seen would dispense benefits this way. But, as pointed out in work by the UBI Center, dispensing benefits through the IRS could mean that a lot of poor people would end up not receiving benefits or not receiving them in a timely manner. That’s because many of them don’t file taxes. And since POC are more likely to be poor than Whites are, this may not bode well for non-Whites. A BI could, but wouldn’t have to, be dispensed through the IRS. All the detailed GI proposals I’ve seen have essentially been some type of Negative Income Tax (NIT) in the form of a refundable tax credit. By definition, a NIT is dispensed through the tax system. But I don’t see why it would be impossible for a GI to be allocated in some other way, perhaps through the Social Security Administration.

It should be clear by now that even though BI proponents don’t typically discuss BI in racial justice terms, that doesn’t mean that a BI couldn’t be designed in such a way that it would promote racial justice at least as much as a GI would. This raises an important question: even if a BI could have the same effects as would a GI, is there something added by openly discussing unconditional, non-work conditioned benefits in racial justice terms?

I’ve listened to enough GI proponents by now to suspect that some would answer this question with a resounding “yes.” I can almost hear them saying, “POC have been oppressed, denigrated, marginalized, and erased in this country for far too long. It’s past time that we implemented more policies that, although they’d help others too, focused primarily on the needs of the POC community. And we should not be afraid to say that that’s exactly what we’re doing; racial justice calls for nothing less.”

I also imagine that there are BI proponents, thinking about the universal versus selective programs debate in social policy circles, who worry that an open focus on POC will ignite the racism that’s led to their oppression, denigration, marginalization, and erasure in the first place. The concern is that a universal program which could benefit everyone, but which could primarily benefit POC, won’t receive enough support because racists will come to associate the policy only with POC.

On the one hand, I feel that both sides of this debate have a point. But then I think of my favorite phrase I’ve heard from the youngsters I sometimes spend time around, typically on the basketball court: “haters gonna hate.” I wonder if another phrase should be coined: “racists gonna racism.” The following statistics from the Pew Research Center will help me explain what I’m getting at.

Pew found in 2020, that about 73% of Blacks, 63% of “Hispanics” (the term used in the survey), and 35% of Whites supported a non-work conditioned BI of $1000 a month. That is, a majority of Blacks and Hispanics supported a BI, while a majority of Whites opposed it. I don’t want to suggest that all the Whites who opposed a BI did so because they associated this universal program with lazy, Black and Brown folks receiving “handouts” they wouldn’t deserve. But these are some pretty stark numerical differences and leaves me wondering how much of the opposition was on that basis; I doubt the correct answer is that none of it was.

Pew didn’t ask about support for GI, at least I’m not aware that it did. Perhaps if it had, racial differences in support for that program would’ve been even more divergent. But it seems to me that even without having comparative findings on public support for GI, Pew’s numbers on BI, when it comes to the assumption that universal programs are always the best way to garner public support, should give BI supporters pause.

I think this question of whether, when proposing non-work conditioned cash assistance policies, we should unabashedly focus on racial justice or highlight how a given policy would benefit everyone, may be a real site of division between some GI and BI proponents. If so, I hope it isn’t an insurmountable one.

Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Almaz Zelleke, Dorian Warren, Michael Howard, and Stephen Nuñez for reviewing this piece for me. 

Michael Lewis is a professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.

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2 replies
  1. Steve Richardson
    Steve Richardson says:

    Thank you, Prof. Lewis! This is the best explanation I have seen of GI and BI (or BIG and UBI). Differences have been misunderstood and exaggerated by supporters, leading to pointless arguments that divide us when we should be unified and focused on persuading skeptics. I happen to favor a NIT because it’s easier to limit outlays than to recoup overpayments. Concern for those who do not file income tax returns is valid but GI would be a big incentive. I agree that SSA may be the better choice for administration – with access to IRS data.


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