Bankole: U.S. needs basic income to combat pandemic

Bankole Thompson

More than 50 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here,” made an impassioned plea for a universal basic income as a means to fight poverty, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the issue on the radar of Congress.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a recent interview said UBI, which is a fixed income that everyone receives from the government, is worthy of serious consideration in light of the economic consequences that the pandemic is having on many struggling families.

“We may have to think in terms of some different ways to put money in people's pockets,” Pelosi said. “Let's see what works, what is operational, and what needs other attention. Others have suggested a minimum income, a guaranteed income for people. Is that worthy of attention now? Perhaps so.” 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Friday, April 24, 2020, in Washington.

Pelosi’s comments mark a significant and radical departure from the establishment and the mainstream view on how to fight income inequality and poverty. In fact, before the coronavirus, she would have received ridicule for even suggesting the idea. Some see the problem of inequality as self-inflicted — an issue that government should be less involved in. But the pandemic is proving otherwise, exposing longtime deficiencies in our economic and health care systems that emphasize the haves and have-nots. 

Pelosi’s pivot is a significant concession to a plan long supported by anti-poverty advocates. The government sending checks directly to people is often dismissed as a pure act of socialism. But that’s what the government just did with the coronavirus stimulus packages to ensure that families currently in dire straits have some form of stability during the period of the crisis.

It took a global pandemic bringing the world economic system to a near standstill for the speaker of the house to start talking about a basic income that King said was needed. 

“We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system," King wrote in his book. "Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty."

Pelosi now needs to move swiftly on this issue and galvanize a working group to look into how to make UBI a reality. Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, recently said that if the U.S. pandemic response doesn't improve, then millions more could plunge into poverty. 

“Low-income and poor people face far higher risks from the coronavirus due to chronic neglect and discrimination, and a muddled, corporate-driven, federal response [that] has failed them,” Alston said. 

As if he was prophesying the coming of COVID-19, King, wrote about challenges similar to the one the pandemic now presents for our economy and the role of government. 

The UBI is also about morality. Many people do important work and are still grossly underpaid. That system is untenable; it's time to modify it. Now Congress should right the wrongs COVID-19 has revealed to the world.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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