Do We Deserve To Live Without Fear of Crushing Poverty?

Do We Deserve To Live Without Fear of Crushing Poverty?


(somber music) – When I first heard about UBI, I was so excited about the simplicity (laughs) of the idea. Like, people don’t have enough money. Let’s give them money. Actually having a universal basic income in this country would require restructuring our entire economy and our entire economic
system to make that work. It’s a massive wealth redistribution, and the only way that happens is if you actually change
your tax structure. There’s no way to have UBI and not have more of a social democracy. (sedate music) – That was Jillian Johnson, the former mayor of
Durham, North Carolina. She is one of the many
people across the country that I spoke with about guaranteed income. But let me back up. A few years ago, I was
invited to participate in a small day-long convening of policymakers, academics and others to talk about guaranteed income, also known as universal
basic income, or UBI. The conversations were
dynamic and wide-ranging, and I was fascinated because I didn’t know much about guaranteed income. Here was a group of people coming together to figure out how to solve the widening gap between the haves and
have-nots in our society. But the more conversations I had that day, the more it became very clear that a common mistake was being made: Well-meaning people were
talking about guaranteed income as a potential remedy
for income inequality, but there was no one in the room who was currently experiencing poverty. That’s not too different from
the national conversation about guaranteed income, where the voices of people experiencing economic
injustice are largely absent. This podcast is my attempt to change that. Over the course of a year, I traveled across the country talking with people
about guaranteed income. I held workshops and had conversations in places like Stockton, California, Jackson, Mississippi, and
Minneapolis, Minnesota. These conversations
about guaranteed income were mostly with people who are struggling to make ends meet and economic justice advocates. In community centers,
crowded nonprofit offices and people’s living rooms, the conversations I had sounded like this. – You’re trying to figure out how you’re gonna do this and
how you’re gonna do that. So what if I don’t have the money to go to that basketball game or that football game or something? That child needs to look up in the stands and see his mama and daddy, or somebody in the family saying, “Go, do your best,” you know,
rooting for them and stuff, and I would love to have it happen. – I never just was able to
get up and go to school. I had to worry about where
my food was coming from. – It’s been hard on me trying to find suitable housing. – And I’m always just,
like, two inches away from slipping up, ya know? (sedate music) – Years of working on
economic and family justice have taught me that you simply cannot solve a problem without including the voices, leadership and wisdom of the people
closest to that problem. Guaranteed income is no exception. The conversation about guaranteed income, both in that room and nationally, has been happening without those who would be most impacted by it: people who are poor. So I decided to begin addressing that omission myself. I traveled around the country talking about guaranteed income with folks how would actually benefit the most from the policy. In rooms with exuberant children and in the backseats of cars, the subject of guaranteed income sparked conversations on everything from deservedness to dreams. My hope is that these few episodes help move us into some of
the underexplored parts of the conversation
about guaranteed income while bringing in the perspectives of people who are struggling
to make ends meet. What got me interested in talking about guaranteed income was its potential to be part of the solution
to economic inequality. I think it’s a policy worth exploring. But what’s kept me engaged is the conversation it invites us to have, a conversation about deservedness, the meaning of work, dignity, and what America can and should be. I’m Mia Birdsong, and
this is More Than Enough. (soothing music) In this episode, the first
of a four-part series, we’re going to talk about
what guaranteed income is and some of its history as an idea promoted by racial and
economic justice movements. We’ll get some context for why guaranteed income, as a policy idea and as a provocation, is important as we confront the moral implications of continued and increasing
economic inequality. I’m going to start with
some level setting, just so we’re on the same page. – The guaranteed income idea essentially advances that notion that every single person has dignity and is guaranteed basic necessities by virtue of birth. You get it by virtue of living in the United States. You are guaranteed it. It’s an income floor so that everyone has the basic necessities to live. And then, of course, people can do other things, in terms
of wanting to thrive in this society and in this economy. – That was Dorian Warren, president of the Center
for Community Change. As he explains, guaranteed
income is the idea that everyone would get some no-strings-attached
money from the government to use as they wish. Even though this idea has been around for a long time, it’s experiencing a kind of resurgence. But the public conversation
about guaranteed income sounds kind of like this.
(thunder cracking) – New worries about robots taking jobs. – If machine mind readers don’t scare you enough, this might. The odds are that you’re
just a few years away from losing your job
not to somebody younger or cheaper than you, but to one of these: robots, which are getting smarter and better a lot faster
than anybody thought. – The robots are laughing. They are coming to take your job. – So much of the current conversation about guaranteed income has been spurred by fears of how mechanization is impacting paid work and increasing
income inequality. In response, many in the tech sector have started advocating
for guaranteed income. Folks like Mark
Zuckerberg, Richard Branson and Elon Musk have all
touted guaranteed income as a possible fix. While it’s always nice
when the wealth hoarders pay attention to income inequality, I’m also skeptical of the people who contribute to and benefit
from income inequality being the ones to design the solution. And I’m not alone. Here’s journalist Anand Giridharadas on the dangers of billionaire saviors. – We used to need the government to solve collective problems, but now we live in a
new, more complicated era in which the private
sector is better positioned to do that, and, therefore, it is in the interests of the poor and forgotten to have rich people make as much money as they can and succeed
as wildly as they can because that puts rich
people in the position to help as much as possible. Of course, what this story ignores is that rich people are the reason government has become incapable. They have fought very hard over the last 30 to 40 years to argue for a government that could do less and less. And then seeing that
government do less and less because their revolution succeeded, they used the fact that the government is less capable as a pretext to justify their stepping in and
solving public problems. But, of course, when the rich step in and solve public problems, they bring their own biases and interests to that problem solving,
and they generally avoid forms of public problem solving that would threaten their own interests. When the rich get a seat on the board of social change, they also gain a veto over forms of social
change that threaten them. – The other frustrating thing about the tech-focused
tenor of the conversation about guaranteed income
is that it’s ahistorical. The idea has a long lineage. Here’s Dorian Warren again, talking about the very black roots of guaranteed income. – There are many black organizations and organizers who are advocating around the notion of economic justice and economic democracy for black Americans during the New Deal and
in New Deal policies where black folks were excluded. There’s this longstanding
tradition around, frankly, racial capitalism
and what that means in terms of black people in America, and then what are the solutions and the strategies to transform economic exploitation
in black communities. In the ’60s, with the Black Panther Party Ten-Point Platform in October of ’66, where one of the planks in that platform is around guaranteed jobs
and guaranteed income. And then in ’67, Dr. King starts speaking about this and writing about it in public lectures and
“Chaos or Community: “Where Do We Go from
Here,” where he comes out forcefully in favor of
a guaranteed income. – In the state of society
where want is abolished, the dignity of the
individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands,
when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated. Now, our country can do this, John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual
income could be done for about $20 billion a year. And I say to you today that if our nation can spend $35 billion a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and $20 billion to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children
on their own two feet right here on Earth. (audience applauding) (sedate music) – In addition to Dr.
King and the Panthers, the National Welfare Rights Organization was also advocating for a
version of guaranteed income. They were a group of
activist welfare recipients who fought for dignity and system reform. They wanted, quote, “Decent jobs “with adequate wages
for those who can work, “and adequate income for
those who cannot work.” The writing of Dr. King is where I got introduced to the
idea of guaranteed income. I was in my first year at Oberlin College and it was the mid-’90s. I had come to the small, private liberal arts college in Ohio at a time when race and
gender studies were booming. For the first time in my life, I was learning black history way beyond Martin and Rosa. I was introduced to Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality framework
and reading bell hooks. I was in a black studies class, and we were discussing King’s perspective on economic justice. In his final book, King wrote, “I’m now convinced that
the simplest approach “will prove to be the most effective. “The solution to poverty
is to abolish it directly, “by a now widely discussed measure: “the guaranteed income.” I heard this and I thought, that is absurd. Part of why I scoffed at the idea of guaranteed income has to do with how I’d gotten to where I was. I came to college from
Rochester, New York, where I’d been raised by my mom. We were working class
when I was growing up. I always was aware that money was tight. I got a lot of my clothes from Goodwill until I got my first job at 13. From elementary school on, I was bused with a handful
of other black kids to a mostly white school in the suburbs. Like so many kids who were told they benefited from affirmative action, I’d been instilled with the belief that my responsibility
was to get an education which would lead to a career, which was essential to
the role I was meant to fulfill as a credit to my race. Free money went against everything I learned about being
a respectable citizen. But people change and our ideas evolve. I no longer wear steel-toed
Doc Martens and suspenders. I generally don’t give a
shit about respectability. And I no longer think
guaranteed income is absurd. (soothing music) I’ve been doing economic justice work for a long time, focusing on the voices and perspectives of those
who experience poverty as a critical source of solutions to economic injustice. I’ve worked at local nonprofits and national think tanks. My focus is less on the policies that we need to put in place and the laws we need to change, and more on the deeper cultural narratives that animate those policies. I’ve become a lot more focused on rewriting the stories
that we tell ourselves about who we are and what we deserve. In 2015, I did a TED Talk called “The Story We Tell About
Poverty Isn’t True.” In that talk and in my work, I was trying to help
create a new narrative about people who are poor by sharing their stories of hard work and sacrifice, stories that showcase a certain kind of dignity that aligns with an American brand of work ethic. But now I’m questioning
that approach, too, because it creates a setup that positions poor people’s worthiness as dependent on them demonstrating that they work hard. While it’s true that most people who are poor work hard, I also believe that requiring people to prove that they are worthy is a slippery slope. We are born into this world deserving. We are worthy of basic human rights, like food, shelter, access to information, healthcare and love just because we exist. But most of us don’t believe that. Research that the Insight Center for
Community Economic Development did on how we think about power, economics and race
painfully backs this up. They found that most of us believe that having a paid job is what makes you a whole person. Here’s Dorian Warren challenging us to rethink that idea. – But I really am excited by the notion that it decouples work from deservedness. And I think that’s one of
the long-term challenges in American politics,
where we have social policy that’s extraordinarily
racialized and gendered so that some people think they deserve it and other people don’t. Decoupling the notion of work from getting any kind of benefits from the government, I think, is really, really important. – We have a long way to go when it comes to recognizing
people’s inherent dignity and decoupling deservedness from work, but one of the ways we do that is by listening and trusting people, especially when we’re
trying to find solutions to problems that impact
their lives directly. Take, for example, this woman in Jackson, Mississippi, who I spoke with as part
of my listening tour. She tells us what she
would want policymakers to know about how
challenging it is to get by. – They show, actually show them this is what I got to work with, and this is what I do from this, this. And then I have to make this exception to not do this because I don’t have the funds for this. To actually just let them walk through someone’s life to see we have to make things stretch until we’re able to do things to make it, to do that. You know, just letting ’em see this is just really hard, you know? But listening to someone talk. They listen, but they don’t understand. – I set out to make this podcast to include more people in the guaranteed income conversation. Though white people are the majority of poor people in the United States, economic injustice conspires with racism and sexism to disproportionately
harm women of color, so I focused on listening
to black and brown women. But to be clear, this podcast
is just the beginning. There are a lot of voices to include in this conversation. We need to hear from unhoused people, people with disabilities, sex workers, people in prison, mentally ill people and immigrants of color. Indigenous people, in particular, have a wide body of knowledge that we should be learning from. Many tribes have
experience with per capita, a structure with similarities
to guaranteed income. Here is researcher Thomas Klem. (speaking in a foreign language) – So my name’s Tom. I’m (mumbles). I’m Potawatomi and I’m
enrolled with Pokagons. Hearing about basic income, people like Chris Hughes and others are proposing something that I know that different indigenous nations have been doing already for years. There’s so much experience we have with this subject that’s gaining so much ground that it seems like it’d be silly for indigenous people to be left out of it. And not just silly, but further making indigenous experience invisible. (somber music) – There’s a lot to think about and interrogate when it comes to what guaranteed income would look like. There is one question I want to address because it comes up over and over again, so let’s just get this
out of the way right now. The United States of America is the wealthiest nation in the world. We have the resources
to pay for some version of guaranteed income without eliminating all of the other benefits low-income folks have access to. The real question is
not can we pay for it, but do we want to? People across the political
ideological spectrum have vastly different ideas
about guaranteed income, some of which could
genuinely benefit people experiencing poverty,
and others that would be a total disaster. It includes everything from a 90% tax rate on the rich to expanding
the Earned Income Tax Credit to dismantling the entire
social safety net system. You can get into some of the debates, the specifics and the
various considerations out there on the internet. Our website, morethanenoughpodcast.com, can point you towards some resources, too. But on this podcast, that’s not what we’re here to talk about. What we’re going to do is listen to people experiencing poverty and those who advocate
for economic justice. And we’re gonna explore some of the moral and social questions guaranteed income raises. And in that, we’re not going to be limited by what’s likely or politically expedient. We’re going to allow ourselves to imagine best-case scenarios. I think Ai-jen Poo, MacArthur Genius and director of the National
Domestic Workers Alliance, offers a critical starting place for the power of approaching
policy conversations without our inner devil’s advocate getting in the way. – We need to imagine policy and imagine our solutions from that place of abundance, and allow these ideas to really take hold and to give them life in the context of an abundant politic. Because the truth is, is that this is a very wealthy country and there’s a lotta people who have a ton of creativity and potential to offer, and also a lot of wealth and prosperity in this country. It just needs to get recirculated and redistributed in a different way. And so I think we just need to keep challenging
ourselves to keep abundant. – Let’s just get this
out of the way right now, and never speak of it again. The United States of America is the wealthiest nation in the world. We have the resources to pay for some generous version
of guaranteed income. The real question is
not can we pay for it, but do we want to? When I was 25 and living in New York, my then-boyfriend, Eric, went back home to Illinois to help his mother and stepfather build a house. He invited me to come and help for a week. Each morning, we’d get up before the sun, eat some toast and pile
into the pickup truck to drive to the house we were building. We’d work until noon,
and then stop for lunch. Each day, Eric brought a different kind of apple for us to try. And each day, his stepfather, John, brought a different gun for us to try. That’s when I discovered that I’m pretty good with a six-shooter. I had never seen a gun in person until that week. One evening after dinner, John took us to the shooting range. I’m not sure how it is in any other shooting range context, but this range was in the basement of
the junior high school because the junior high
school had a gun club. You know, chess club, math league, debate team, gun club. I remember very vividly
descending the stairs to the basement. John went first, then Eric, then me. I got far enough down the stairs to see below the ceiling into the room. I remember breaking into a cold sweat and suddenly realizing where I was, in the middle of Illinois, the only black person for miles, a woman, in a room full
of white men with guns. I thought, this is how people disappear. I managed to keep going down the stairs and watched as John greeted his friends and introduced Eric and me. The greetings I received
were warm and welcoming. Several of the men offered their guns for me to try out and complimented me on my shooting. They gave me advice on
my stance and technique. They were kind of sweet. I mostly listened to
them talk to each other, and I remember at one point realizing that I was in a roomful of dads. I don’t wanna overstate this. We did not discuss immigration or policing or abortion. I didn’t suddenly think
we could be friends. But the experience
complicated my worldview. These men, who a week earlier I understood as caricatures, I suddenly saw as human beings. On that trip, I found some cow bones in a field, and as a
kind of witchy city girl, I took them as treasure. I used to display them as a reminder to invite myself into the sometimes uncomfortable place of really recognizing and believing in the inherent humanity and dignity of people I don’t agree with, including people who don’t extend the same graciousness to me. I do this not for what it does for them, but because of what it does for me. Seeing others’ humanity prevents me from losing my own. I don’t get this right all the time, but I keep working at it. As we struggle through this time of deep dissent, division and fear about the state of the country and the survival of democracy, we have to reckon with
the tremendous injustice many of us experience and many of us contribute to. I welcome the opportunity
guaranteed income offers, both as part of a solution
to income inequality and as an entry point into a conversation about how we can walk ourselves back from the precipice we’re on so we can be better people, so we can become our most generous, loving, kind selves. (soothing music) As you listen to and, I hope, think about the people and ideas this
podcast series presents, I’m inviting you to be open, to suspend cynicism and to revel in what is wholly human about all of us because I believe there
is a kind of joy in that, a kind of liberation in rejecting what we’ve learned about who
is deserving and undeserving, rejecting the idea that in order for us to win, others have to lose. Let’s start from a place
that redefines success as each of us getting what we need. Let’s start with more than enough. (soothing music) (moves into electronic music) More Than Enough was developed by Next River Productions, created and hosted by me, Mia Birdsong. Audio engineering and
music by Nino Michela. Script development and
production by Allison Cook. The content of this podcast was informed by the stories of hundreds of people across the country, only some of whom you heard from. Thank you to everyone who took their time to speak with me and share their story. Support for the production
of More Than Enough was provided by a few generous folks and the Economic Security Project, an organization advancing
cash-based interventions in the United States and reining in corporate monopolies. More Than Enough is a project
of The Nation magazine. (electronic music)

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