Thousands of auto workers for the three-largest U.S. carmakers walked off the job last week because their pay has only increased fractionally in the wake of the auto companies’ soaring profits. Meanwhile, the advent of streaming content — coupled with AI and its impact on the creative class — has spurred Hollywood writers and actors to remain on strike for months now. This is on top of the recent narrowly averted railroad and UPS strikes, which would have paralyzed crucial sectors of the U.S. economy.
Workers are right in demanding a greater share of the record wealth that their labor fuels, but in which they have not adequately shared — producing even greater inequality. Workers — union members, low-wage earners and white-collar professionals — should demand a federally supported universal basic income (UBI) of regular cash payments to all Americans.
The technological advances of AI have broadened the discussion about the workers it will affect. Even the creator of ChatGPT has emphasized the need for a UBI to offset labor income losses due to AI (and is also funding one of the country’s largest UBI pilots). Now the replacement of truck drivers, call-center clerks, supermarket cashiers and fast-food workers is coming for white-collar workers who were thought to be protected because of the intellectual content of their contribution. The endangered middle-class could finally bring UBI to reality.
During the COVID pandemic, Americans acknowledged the contributions of essential workers, but every worker is contributing to American prosperity and deserves fair compensation. Instead, Corporate America increases the gap between the rich and everyone else, through every good and bad economic cycle, and for the past 40 years corporations have nearly quadrupled their share of that gain.
Simply put: Americans are working harder and making less. Economic insecurity is built into the capitalistic system, maximizing profits for shareholders rather than commit to growing the economy as a whole and reducing unemployment. Meanwhile, workers and unions are disempowered. To make matters worse, since healthcare in America is generally tied to the workplace, it’s difficult to leave a job.
“ UBI is not meant as a replacement for anyone’s salary. ”
When almost four of every 10 Americans can’t come up with $400 in cash to pay for an unforeseen expense, it’s time for a new social safety net. UBI would help the parent who wants to stay home with their child, the writers on strike, the workers looking for a new job with better wages, the student or older worker trying to improve their skills, the entrepreneur trying to start a business, people trying to save for a new home. A guaranteed income would help Americans to seize opportunities when they present themselves without having to assume unaffordable risks.
Most proposals for a UBI envision $500 to $1,000 per month, per adult. This is not enough to cover all expenses, but a UBI is not meant as a replacement for anyone’s salary — it’s intended to supplement existing income and bridge the gap between a bad job and a good one. It is distributed to everyone to streamline the process and ensure no one falls through the cracks, but is clawed back through taxes from people who don’t need it.
There is massive growing and compelling evidence from several pilots, both currently operating and already completed, demonstrating the positive effects cash assistance, unconditionally, has on people’s lives. We can also look to the expanded Child Tax Credit of 2021 for proof of concept, where families received monthly direct cash for each child in their household. In those months, we saw that as little as $300 per month brought 10 times the return on the investment.
The future economic security for all Americans is not a matter of chance, it’s a matter of choice. There are many choices a prosperous society like ours can make to fund UBI, which is also a solid economic investment given it not only affects the well-being of recipients — but also contributes to the greater good.
An investment in Americans through a UBI is a fundamental recognition that we have to structurally change the meaning of work. The U.S. can fund a UBI through federal revenues — be it reforming the tax system so the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share, capturing the added profit of automation, or finding new sources like land-value taxes.
The U.S. economy is in the midst of a massive transition as we confront the challenges and opportunities of AI and the inequity created by several decades of worker disempowerment. Workers deserve, and are demanding, better. A UBI is an important step in helping Americans weather the changing nature of labor and puts us on a path toward a future in which we are all valued for our humanity, not our productivity.
Gisèle Huff is president of the Gerald Huff Fund for Humanity and the author of “Force of Nature.” Andy Stern is the president emeritus of SEIU, and a senior fellow at the Economic Security Project.