Universal Basic Income, Social Justice, and Marginality: A Critical Evaluation.

AuthorKnowles, Anthony J.

Struggles for economic justice have historically centered around the fight for jobs and higher wages, but universal basic income (UBI) seeks to distribute wealth outside of labor by giving every citizen an unconditional and universal minimum income. This paper critically assesses the policy of UBI and asks what ought to be taken into consideration and addressed before the first practical implementation of UBI on a broad scale. Three issues are outlined: UBI in relation to histories of oppression and the danger of a neoliberal universal basic income; UBI and the issues of citizenship, border imperialism, and social solidarity; and how UBI could affect the carceral system and the incarcerated. The essay argues that UBI runs the risk of reproducing precarity and inequality if not crafted with the needs of marginalized communities in mind and theorizes what a socially just UBI might look like if it was designed to confront these challenge


The struggle for economic justice in modern capitalist societies has been primarily oriented toward struggles for work and wages. From the activities of left-leaning parties in union bargaining to the Fight for 15 campaign, fights for economic justice have predominantly centered around improving the material conditions of workers while implicitly affirming work as the principal means of distributing income and a central node in structuring modern social relations (Postone 1993). While improved working conditions and wages improve the lives of workers and their families, these measures alone fail to reach those on the margins, such as the unemployed or underemployed, and alone do not address how jobs are stratified on a geographical, national, racial, and gendered basis. These movements are also often not responsive to feminist critiques of waged labor that exclude non-waged reproductive labor as a responsibility that still falls primarily to women (Weeks 2011).

Ultimately, the struggle for better wages and working conditions still holds survival for most people in the hands of capitalist businesses that hire labor-power not out of a desire to circulate wealth through the community, but rather employ rationalized instrumental cost/benefit analyses (Weber 1922/2013) to determine the necessary number of workers needed to function and generate profit. Since the turn toward neoliberalism and the rise of globalization in recent decades, the struggle for improved working conditions and wages--mediated by government institutions with regulations and laws that often favor big business over workers (Gilens & Page 2014, Lessig 2011, Reich 2015)--has been an uphill battle too often met with defeat (see Greenhouse 2019). If not the struggle for improved working conditions and wages, what alternative strategy is there in the fight for economic justice?

For those seeking alternative paths to economic justice, one of the most popular policy proposals in recent years has been the call for a universal basic income (UBI). Universal basic income is a public policy program where a predetermined amount of income is given by the government on a routine basis to every citizen of a society without additional stipulations or requirements. UBI is similar in concept and purpose to social security in the United States, but rather than being limited to retirees, it is given to all citizens regardless of age, income, wealth, job status, or need. The primary aim of this essay is to critically assess the policy of universal basic income as an alternative method for attaining social and economic justice.

Such an assessment is pertinent now more than ever as UBI is being discussed within the halls of governments around the world, with randomized controlled trials and studies being conducted by national and international governmental bodies, NGOs, and even charitable foundations (Fouksman & Klein 2019, Widerquist 2017). In response to the COVTD-19 pandemic, both Republican and Democratic administrations in the United States delivered universal stimulus check payments that held widespread popular support (Mallow 2021). In addition, the American Rescue Plan passed in March 2021 created a child tax credit program that, while not universal, gave $3,600 per child under the age of 6 and $3,000 per child ages 6 through 17, and was fully refundable as well as partially doled out in monthly payments (DeParle 2021). The recent implementation of these policies, which are structurally similar to UBI in key respects, demonstrates the willingness and political viability of direct cash distribution to citizens, at least under certain circumstances such as the COVTD-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, these developments may represent an increasing political will that inches UBI closer to practical implementation on a large scale.

The calls for UBI are also increasingly heard in mainstream public and political discourse thanks to the endorsement of UBI from several wellknown Silicon Valley tech moguls (Smiley 2015). The policy perhaps received its biggest boost in popular recognition when entrepreneur Andrew Yang ran for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary and the 2021 New York City Democratic mayoral primary on a campaign centered around a UBI proposal called the Freedom Dividend as its flagship policy (see Yang 2018). Though Yang was unsuccessful in both endeavors, his high-profile presence and advocacy for UBI in two highly publicized political campaigns certainly pushed UBI into mainstream discourse in unprecedented ways. This renewed wave of interest in both political and mainstream public discourse can be called UBI's third wave (Widerquist 2017) and its rise presents a challenge and opportunity for both scholars and activists in favor of UBI.

Within this context, this essay is an attempt to intervene in these discourses with an eye toward enabling policymakers, scholars, UBI activists, and citizens to become cognizant of potential hidden downsides or unintended consequences of UBI that emerge depending on how the program is structured, and offering some suggestions on howto address these concerns. The intention is not to advocate for or against UBI generally, especially considering the variety of specific forms a UBI program could take, but to examine it critically to evaluate its strengths and potential weaknesses, who it benefits, and who it may leave behind. In other words, in a time when UBI is increasingly entering mainstream discourse and governments are implementing similarly structured policies, what ought to be taken into consideration and addressed before the first practical implementation of UBI on a broad scale? Though not a comprehensive fist of such concerns, I argue that three issues stand out in importance and ought to be linked to contemporary discussions of UBI, whether in the context of politics, scholarly debate, or public discourse. These specific issues are as follows: UBI's relationship to histories of oppression and the danger of what I call the neoliberal universal basic income, its connection to citizenship, borders, and social solidarity, and how UBI could impact people in the carceral system and the system itself. (1)

I make my case here drawing from both contemporary proponents of UBI (Bregman 2017; Livingston 2016; Smicek 6c Williams 2015; van der Veen & Van Parijs 1986; Van Parijs 1995, 2001) as well as the perspective of scholars who promote alternative forms of social justice by rethinking modern social problems and seeking to qualitatively transform ways of life by dismantling structures and practices of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, and the carceral state (Best & Hartman 2005, Dilts 2016, Tuck & Wang 2016). This puts renewed discussions and debates surrounding UBI in dialogue with social justice literatures that at their core recognize that justice is fugitive (Best & Hartman 2005), that it often fails us (Dilts 2016), and, in recognition of the histories of slavery, colonialism, and state violence, that the movement for justice is a never-ending struggle. Both the literature on UBI and these alternative justice frameworks seek to promote social justice, but do so with broadly different perspectives, priorities, theoretical frameworks, and methodologies. For example, discussions of UBI often focus on debating minutia and specifics in types of UBI schemes, such as the most viable tax framework to fund a UBI (see Brynjolfsson & McAfee 2014, 232-41; Mason 2015, 284-86; Smicek & Williams 2015, 118-120; Van Parijs 2001). Social justice literatures, by contrast, concentrate on the daily lived, sensuous experience of marginalized people in an intersectional framework (Crenshaw 1989), especially illuminating the complex interlocking oppressions of incarcerated people, people of color, and LGBTQ_people in the context of modern capitalist society (Brown & Schept 2017, Sharpe 2016, Tuck & Wang 2016). Despite these differences, I intend to demonstrate how a synthesis of these frameworks and literatures can inform and benefit one another and ultimately make a critical intervention in the renewed governmental interest and public consciousness of UBI. Before tackling these three issues, however, two further elements of the so-called third wave of UBI (Widerquist 2017) need to be explained: UBI and the issues of automation and technological unemployment and the emancipatory potential of radical visions of UBI (see Fouksman & Klein 2019, Srnicek & Williams 2015, van der Veen & Van Parijs 1986, Van Parijs 1995).

The Threat of Automation and Universal Basic Income

The discussion surrounding UBI is often coupled with research on automation that explains how modern society is entering a qualitatively new social context for labor--it details the potential social impact of the development of highly advanced technologies such as robots and artificial intelligence that can automate labor on an increasing scale. Developments in technology, such as highly...

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