UBI? More like UB-Why???

Why a universal basic income is a band-aid but not a solution.

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Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash

As the pandemic continues, and most places still have stay-at-home orders in place, many people have been calling for a Universal Basic Income. Presidential candidates, party leaders, activists and liberals have all demanded a universal basic income for the people. Some have touted it as the logical solution to make things equal and accessible and many love the idea of being able to count on basic necessities being taken care of and some even go as far as to suggest that a universal basic income will solve hunger and homelessness. Most of the aid programs that have been announced in response to the financial hardships the pandemic has caused have been very clearly geared toward workers who lost income due to the pandemic as well as businesses. Apparently the poor, the disabled and the elderly can't be trusted with cash and must go begging at food banks and other NGOs. In light of this, I can understand why people would think that giving everyone the same amount of money is a just and therefore desirable outcome. And in the short term, it's a great band-aid and it would help to eliminate the discrimination that is reinforced by the stratification of government aid.

In Quebec, where I live, people on welfare, disability and government pensions are expected to survive on one third to one half of what laid-off workers are getting. Even in times of global crisis, the message is clear: "you are only worthy of sufficient help if you were generating money when the pandemic hit and you need to have your life subsidised so banks don't fail".And even then, it doesn't cover all workers. In the case of workers who are deemed "essential" and are, therefore, "allowed" to keep working, some aren't even getting hazard pay and even the top-up some governments are giving them still doesn't match what people who are laid off are getting. Huge shout out to these people who cannot even quit because quitting would make them ineligible for aid and so have to power through and put their lives at risk for less than the people who can stay home.

It would definitely be one less thing to worry about when the choice is often "risk your life and the lives of others by going out and ignoring public health orders" or "go hungry or get in a lot of trouble with your unflexible landlord". And many don't even have the option of working!

BUT…

As much as you can solve some very short-term issues by offering the same amount of aid to everyone this is NOT a long-term solution. Yes, it would undo some of the discrimination directed at people who don't get paid (or get paid peanuts) for their contributions to society or have already paid a lifetime of taxes but it can also lead to much more discrimination, poverty shaming, the widening of the wealth gap and the limiting of social mobility amng other things. Let's look at those more in-depth.

  1. UBI does not unlock doors sealed shut by systemic oppression. Just because you have money doesn't mean you have access. For example. many will not be allowed to rent whatever apartment they want wherever you want even if it fits their budget. Why? Because landlords will still project all sorts of things onto marginalised communities which will justify a refusal. So, if you're racialised, look or act "weird", are unable to mask your neurodivergence or your gender identity or are on the wrong end of any of the made-up privilege-oppression axes (aka demographics and citizenship status), UBI doesn't fix the problem of access for you.

In the end, money isn't a panacea and it won't even guarantee that people have their most basic needs met. It's lazy to hold up UBI as a solution to all our problems or as some great equaliser. In some ways, it's not enough and in other ways it's just too much. So, yeah, for the short-term it can help people by giving them some room to breathe but thinking of UBI as a long-term solution is like thinking you can treat a gunshot wound with a band-aid. It might stop the bleeding and keep some of the bacteria out but it's no substitute for stitches or surgery. What we need to do is to stop creating barriers to access, meet people's needs and help them discover and hone their best selves.

Founder of HugTrain, a movement (literally!!) focused on empowerment through small actions

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