IQ2 debate: Is Universal Basic Income the safety net of the future?

Food shelf volunteer
Bonnie Opheim, a volunteer at the Manna Market at SonLight Church of the Nazarene in Blaine, Minn., sorts through food rescued from Twin Cities grocery stores on May 5, 2011. The market gives fresh food away free to low-income Minnesotans.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

What if the government gave everyone a $600 check every month as a base level of income? Would it combat poverty and help workers in an ever-changing economy? Or would it take away the incentive to work?

Four people debate this topic using the motion, "A 'Universal Basic Income' is the safety net of the future."

For the argument: Charles Murray, W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Andrew Stern, former president of Service Employees International Union and Senior Fellow at the Economic Security Project.

Against the argument: Jared Bernstein, Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden. Jason Furman, Senior Fellow at Peterson Institute and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.

Opening arguments: For the motion

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The 2016 election made it clear that the 21st century has gotten off to a really bad start economically, said Andrew Stern.

"47 percent of Americans couldn't find $400 for an unexpected expense," he said. "Nearly half are stuck in jobs that make less than $15 an hour. 40 percent perform unstable contingent work."

Accelerated technology resulting in the automation of jobs is largely to blame for the losses. And a universal basic income could act as both a shock absorber and a supplement to work in these uncertain times, Stern said.

Stern proposes citizens ages 18 to 64 receive $1, 000 a month, so $12,000 a year, no strings attached.

"According to government statistics that $12,000 ends poverty for the first time for 43 million people," he said. "It would allow entrepreneurs to start a business, women to escape domestic violence, or finally be compensated for their care giving jobs."

It would also allow people to turn down jobs that do not pay enough, support college students through their education and help prisoners survive once released. Then America could eliminate some of the current welfare programs, tax expenditures and health care benefits to make up the costs, he said.

"The universal basic income is supported across the political ideologies because it's a fix — efficient and flexible and humane and can end poverty once and for all," Stern said.

Opening arguments: Against the motion

The economy is not perfect, improvements and reforms are needed, but a universal basic income would take America in the wrong direction, said Jason Furman.

The premise for this basic income is rooted in the belief that robots will take all of our jobs and there won't be any way for people to make money, he said, but people have been thinking this for a long time, starting with farmers.

"Today, machines do 90 percent of what workers could do 100 years ago, and yet the unemployment rate is a little bit below 5 percent just like the employment rate was in the year 1900," Furman said.

Fears aside, just cutting government programs like unemployment insurance or food stamps wouldn't be enough to implement a basic income, Furman said. There are $300 billion spent a year on income support programs — but giving everyone the money proposed in the opposing side's plan would cost approximately $1.8 trillion to implement.

"We need to build on what works. We need to end what doesn't work," he said. "And in particular, we need to support and encourage work, because while there will be jobs in the future, I don't think it's automatic that people can get them, and helping connect people to jobs, helping them work, helping fulfill their meaning and get an income is the most important thing for us to do."

To listen to the full debate, click the audio player above.

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