Reflections on the basic income movement and the NABIG 2021 Congress

Michael Howard

Coordinator, USBIG

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.

This year’s NABIG Congress, with the theme of “Knowledge, Activism, Policy,” was designed to bring together researchers, activists, and policymakers, to discuss what has been learned, and to chart some paths forward. Reflecting the growing number of organizations, the organizing committee included not only USBIG and BICN, but also IM and the Basic Income Canada Youth Network, and the program included people from most of the other newer groups. The opening keynote session featured Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, including the mayors from Oakland, CA, Tacoma WA, and St. Paul, MN. The organization now has over 50 mayors supporting guaranteed income. If you want to see politicians who are interested, not in managing the status quo, but in changing the way we think, particularly about work and poverty, watch this session.

A second keynote session focused on intersectionality. Amy Durrence from Free From spoke about how, in cases of intimate partner violence, restraining orders were insufficient without a minimum amount of cash enabling women to achieve independence from their abusers. She reported that even small amounts such as $250 could be transformative, but that cash payments also need to be complemented by policy’s that prevent fraudulent debt by harm doers and stealing of cash payments has happened with some stimulus checks. She estimated that the minimum necessary for independence in these cases was around $1000 per month. Liz Theoharis, from the Poor People’s Campaign, talked about basic income as a core demand of the organization’s jubilee policy, and stressed that this is only part of a set of demands including living wage jobs and a higher minimum wage. It is important, she said, to get the details right: it must be a guaranteed adequate income and we need a more accurate measure of poverty than the official poverty line which does not give people enough money for housing, it should include children, there should be no work requirement, it should be adequate to support care work, in short, it should be sufficient to enable everybody to thrive. Mitchell Beers addressed the importance of basic income in the context of a just transition away from fossil fuels by mid-century. In Canada, this involves phasing out coal by 2030 and ending the exploitation of tar sands. Because many jobs will be lost, a just transition must make sure that no one is left behind.   Basic income can contribute to income security, but other policies are needed to address the specific needs of people losing jobs. Sheila Regehr (BICN) reinforced the idea that, in Canada, the goal is not to replace the welfare state with cash, but rather to consolidate cash payments efficiently and with dignity for the recipients.

The keynote on pilots included Sarah Cowan on Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend,  Amy Castro Baker and Stacia West on the Stockton pilot, Adam Roseman on one-time grants to  700,000 unemployed workers, and a memorable dialogue with Evelyn Forget about whether we need more pilot studies, and for what purposes. The panelists spoke eloquently about the need to broaden the focus beyond the obsessions with work time reduction, childbearing, and consumption of temptation goods. Several other sessions at the congress also focused on pilot projects.

The Political Champions keynote included two elected members of parliament and a senator from Canada, and representatives from two American basic income organizations. MP Julie Dzerowicz has introduced the first basic income bill in Canada. Both she and MP Leah Gazan stressed the deficiencies of work-dependent benefits, the costs of poverty, and the importance of seeing basic income as complementary to other programs, not a replacement. Humanity Forward has been working to create bipartisan support for basic income policies. According to Liam deClive-Lowe, Executive Director, HF has conducted 200 briefings on both sides of the aisle in Congress. He told the story about how one Ohio representative flipped on the question of additional stimulus checks after hearing about how a woman was able to get her car repaired and thus get to work because of the cash. Stories are important, so too are taking intermediate steps such as one-time universal cash payments in the pandemic and Child Tax Credit (CTC) expansion. For effective persuasion, he recommended putting the desirable outcome first and following with the policy solution, customizing your pitch to the person you are trying to persuade, and bringing along an ally who can reach them. Gisele Huff, of the Fund for Humanity (which contributed funding for NABIG 2021), showed how small steps can lead to big outcomes: a small BI pilot for foster youth led to a study, and one of the people involved is now a state senator promoting a basic income for the whole of California.

The final keynote, “Better Together, reflections on the movement and next steps” featured Madeline Neighly, Director of Guaranteed Income at Economic Security Project,

Ken Yang who helped grow Canada’s UBI Works network to 80,000+ activists,

Jenna Van Draanen, the co-chair of the Basic Income Canada Network, 

John Ma, an organizer for Level Up, the newly christened grassroots organization born from the California Yang Gang, Gisele Huff, President of the Fund for Humanity, and Stacey Rutland, the founder of Income Movement. I won’t attempt to summarize this free-wheeling conversation, except to say that if you want an inside view of how these organizations worked together, and with dozens of other organizations not focused on basic income but sharing goals, to rise to the challenge of the pandemic, calling for cash payments, expansion of the CTC and making it permanent, and mobilizing mayors and others at the grassroots, then watch this session.

On the research front, there are now several think tanks giving priority to basic income research. Among these represented at the congress are the UBI Center (which, among other things, is modeling a child allowance for California), the Cash Transfer Lab at NYU, the Center for Guaranteed Income Research at UPenn., the Urban Institute, and the Jain Family Foundation. Authors of recent books included Elaine Power, James Boyce, and Karl Widerquist

The arts were better represented than in any previous Congress, with two sessions involving filmmakers, sessions on storytelling, arts and activism, and a gallery space for visual artists. Anyone who has not seen Inherent Good should look for it at their nearest library, where it is available for streaming on Kanopy. 

In addition to the keynotes, there were over 25 breakout sessions. One of the most well attended was on the topic of universality, a subject of vigorous debate in both the US and  Canada: whether a guaranteed minimum income should go to everybody or only to those who need it. Another was on the future of tech work, a topic that is central for many basic income supporters. Check out the schedule for the full range of topics and presenters.

The basic income movement in North America has grown from an idea into a reality. Accordingly, this annual congress has enlarged its mission to include fostering dialogue and cooperation among the many organizations that are now agitating for a guaranteed income for everyone. We go forth from the congress informed and energized for the challenges that lie ahead, and we’ll meet again in a year to assess what we will have learned from our efforts.  If CTC expansion can be made permanent, it will be an important step toward a basic income. Then an unconditional minimum income that is truly universal, adequate, and better enabling people to say no to undesirable personal and work relations will become more politically feasible.   

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