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Is This the Universal Basic Income That Americans Will Buy?

A new proposal for a Universal Earned Income Tax Credit could unlock the poverty-fighting powers of no-strings-attached money.
The tax man.
The tax man.Susan Walsh/AP

As far as most of the country is concerned, universal basic income—that’s when the government just, like, gives people money—is the stuff of NBER white papers and Star Trek economics. Beyond a handful of notable experiments, like a pilot program in Stockton, California, to give 130 random residents $500 a month for a year and a half, UBI demonstrations—in the U.S. at least—are more elusive than UFOs. That’s at least in part because the premise itself is so fundamentally antithetical to the American mythology of self-made men and women: Handouts are for places like Finland.  

But with job-eating automation looming and the wealth gap growing, the essential logic behind UBI—a no-strings-attached cash transfer program that helps vulnerable low-wage households from teetering into ruinous poverty—is more relevant than ever. And we might not have to wait for a socialist revolution or an Andrew Yang presidency to see what it might look like in the United States. Leaders in the here-and-now are thinking about ways to expand a conventional tax credit to guarantee the wages of low- and middle-income working households. Changes to the tax code could help to make up the wage stagnation that has dragged the economy for more than a generation.