What We Mean When We Say “Guaranteed Basic Income”

In the April 24, 2017 issue of Time magazine, Matt Vella penned an article entitled “Universal Basic Income: a utopian idea whose time may finally have arrived”. Perhaps he too could “see the handwriting on the wall”. Today, in local cities throughout the United States and in countries all over the globe, from Sweden to China, Canada to Kenya, Saudi Arabia to Brazil, everyday people, ordinary citizens are actively organizing and laboring to secure a basic economic flooring for its fellow citizens in the age of a global pandemic, massive unemployment and underemployment, extreme poverty, and increasing job losses due to computers and automation.

Historically, one of the earliest official uses of a state sponsored guaranteed basic income system dates back to the year 632 C.E., under the rule of the Sunni Muslim Caliph Abu Bakr in the Middle East. The guaranteed income idea became more prominent in the western world by way of one of the founding fathers of the U.S., the American revolutionary, political activist, and thinker Thomas Paine, who published a pamphlet in 1797 entitled Agrarian Justice. In this pamphlet, he argued capitalism is unjust because of the system of property rights, which deprives those without property their natural birthright. He reasoned the earth was given to all of us in common and those who owned property had a huge economic advantage over those that do not. In effect, it restricts others from access to vital natural resources and a means of making a living off the land.

Paine’s remedy for a more just form of capitalism was to insist that all property owners pay a nominal “ground rent” or tax for the use of the land they currently possess. The funds from the proceeds could then be distributed to all citizens on a monthly basis to serve as a basic income, so people would be able to live in decent housing, pursue business interests, provide safe food and basic necessities for their families, pursue education interests, and enjoy the fruits of life without worry of homelessness, poverty and the social ills that come with living in impoverished conditions such as income based crimes like robberies and turf wars, theft, murder, drug abuse, mental illness, sickness, and so on.

Ever since the 18th century, U.S. presidents and prominent officials have supported broad economic intervention measures to deal with systemic poverty. Franklin D. Roosevelt supported an Economic Bill of Rights in the 1930s, Lyndon B. Johnson advanced the Great Society and the “War on Poverty” programs in the 1960s, even Richard Nixon supported the Family Assistance Plan after groups like the National Welfare Rights organization pressured him to address chronic poverty. These programs were precursors to the guaranteed basic income movement and in some cases, such as in the 1970s with Nixon, the guaranteed basic income was a major item in the push for economic justice.

Over the past two years, guaranteed basic income has become a national topic of discussion, in particular, during the 2020 presidential election. With the outbreak of COVID-19, increasing wealth gaps, and a long-looming economic crisis, many are turning towards this seemingly new measure as a means to address our current condition. With the additional crisis of being hit by a tornado in 2020, Nashville is among several cities that would greatly benefit from a guaranteed basic income. Other cities currently implementing or working to implement a form of guaranteed income legislation and/or pilot program include Jackson, MS, Chicago IL., Boise, ID., Concord, NH. And the list continues to grow.

One of the biggest inspirations for our work is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When many hear his name, they often think of his “I Have A Dream” speech made in Washington D.C on August 28, 1963. However, towards the end of his life, Dr. King became a huge voice against the economic inequalities that were deeply connected to systemic racism, which led to the development of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. In collaboration with Asa Phillip Randolph, other leading civil rights leaders, prominent actors and entertainers, presidents of national labor unions, and prominent economists, Dr. King co-created the Freedom Budget for All Americans in 1966. This was a document that was created with the intent to systematically eliminate all forms of poverty in the United States within ten years. Many of the budget items included in the Freedom Budget of 1966 are national topics today: universal healthcare, adequate housing, and guaranteed basic income, to name a few.

We are also inspired by the Black Women organizers in the National Welfare Rights Organization. These working-class women were advocates for the welfare of all people, especially women and children. This organization was a part of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and attempted to fight for welfare recipients (particularly women and caretakers) during the Nixon Administration; the compromise that arose from this yielded the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Without a doubt, there are varying ideas about how the Guaranteed Basic Income should work, how it should be financed, and why it should exist. The Nashville Economic Justice Alliance envisions a world in which all Nashville residents are guaranteed the economic resources they need in order to live healthy, happy, productive lives. We envision a Guaranteed Basic Income that directly addresses poverty in our city. We aim to realize a Guaranteed Basic Income that enhances the current series of public benefits and services, not as an alternative. We seek to affirm the dignity of the Nashville community by pursuing a Guaranteed Basic Income for all our fellow citizens who struggle to meet their basic needs for survival.

With the creation of local Guaranteed Basic Income legislation, undergirded by the aims of the Freedom Budget of 1966, we will be one step closer to realizing the goals of Dr King’s Poor People Campaign while at the same time, making Nashville truly an “It City” in 2021.

The Nashville Economic Justice Alliance (NEJA) is a grassroots organization founded by a local group of organizers with different experiences combating systemic injustices in Nashville, TN. Founded on August 6, 2018, NEJA was created to eradicate the economic inequities in the city of Nashville, TN.

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