Building on the tradition begun in 1895 of Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz hosting high-level convocations to strategize about subjects of ethical concern to the resort’s Quaker founders, such as world peace and restoring the rights of Indigenous peoples, the not-for-profit organization Mohonk Consultations (MC) continues its mission of organizing workshops and conferences on issues of equity, social change and the environment. Since its founding in 1980, MC has become the Hudson Valley’s little think tank that could, planting seeds that have grown into successful community efforts to make the world — or our region — a better place.
Following a couple of years of virtual presentations during the COVID pandemic, MC has resumed its long-running series of live conferences and talks on cutting-edge approaches to issues that concern us all. The latest symposium took place in the Parlor at the Mountain House on October 16, titled “Universal Basic Income: Transformative Policy or Utopian Fantasy?”
It’s ironic that the same disruptive global event that forced MC to take a hiatus from hosting such events for a while has also served to nudge public perception of Universal Basic Income (UBI) away from the latter category in that title toward the former. Remember the longshot 2020 presidential bid of part-time New Paltz resident Andrew Yang? He ran what was essentially a single-issue campaign based on having the US adopt UBI — which he rebranded the Freedom Dividend — and it entirely failed to catch fire; Yang’s polling never made it out of the single digits. Most Americans scoffed at the notion that giving people free money would make any of the country’s problems go away, never mind the evidence that such an approach has worked well elsewhere.
That was before COVID. Nearly all of us have now had the experience of the federal government tucking some extra bucks into our bank accounts — with no eligibility requirements, no questions asked — to help us get through the near-shutdown of the economy caused by the pandemic. Not only did the various stimulus program “handouts,” including three rounds of direct relief payments, help us as individuals cope with the financial impacts on our families, but they also kept the wheels of the larger economy turning through the worst of the crisis. Bad as it was, it could’ve been much worse, had the feds not intervened.
So, now we know what we average folk would do if we only had a little more money — and it wasn’t hard partying. This unasked-for broad social experiment reinforced what social scientists already knew, from innumerable pilot projects conducted in the US and around the world: Guaranteed income programs work. Contrary to the moralistic assumptions that many of us tend to make that unearned income will be spent frivolously, the repeatedly demonstrated truth is that nearly every beneficiary will use it productively if it’s unconditional and unrestricted. As one of Sunday’s speakers, Dr. Stephen Nuñez of the Jain Family Institute, pointed out, “All the evidence suggests that if you give poor people cash, they’re less likely to use drugs. People tend to self-medicate to deal with stress.”
Most of the many UBI demonstration projects, and Yang’s presidential campaign, have used an extra thousand dollars per month as the baseline for comparing how people’s lives change when chronic financial stress is alleviated, without any bureaucratic hoops to jump through. Filmmaker/activist Conrad Shaw screened clips from a documentary about the Bootstraps Basic Income Experiment, in which a sampling of Americans in ten states, ranging from homeless people and ex-convicts to middle-class families, were asked to share their thoughts about what they would do with that much more money. When 22 of them were finally told that they’d been selected to participate in a UBI program, several openly wept.
Shaw shared moving stories of how these beneficiaries had turned their lives around by the time the two-and-a-half-year demonstration program ended. “UBI worked in every case. Every participant elevated themselves into a safer, stronger, more confident and more productive situation in life,” he said, adding that for some, the ability to build a financial cushion had “acted as armor against catastrophe,” such as one whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Florence. “What surprised me was how quickly these changes took place. They knew what they wanted. Suddenly life’s mountainous challenges felt bite-sized.”
These findings were reinforced in the roundtable discussions that wrapped up Sunday’s symposium, in which participants responded to prompts asking what they or people they knew would do differently with a guaranteed extra $1,000 per month, as well as how their life paths might’ve been different had their families benefited from such a program when they were children. Whether they had grown up with a scarcity mentality or in a comfortable home, all (at this participant’s table, at least) envisioned a life meaningfully enhanced by broadened options and less pressure to make decisions based on fears about the future.
How does such a program get financed, if made universal, as advocated by proponents? Shaw argued that a UBI of $1,000 per month for every American is feasible “on our existing tax system,” given a national average income of $50,000 per year. Nuñez cited revenue from the sale of natural resources, imposition of a carbon tax and a Value Added Tax, as used in many European countries, as potential additional sources.
“Basic income isn’t so utopian,” said Dr. Almaz Zelleke, professor of Practice in Political Science at NYU Shanghai, after recapping the history of previous federal programs created to alleviate poverty and explaining why the ones with the strictest qualifications and most elaborate bureaucracies were the costliest and least successful. “Basic income isn’t so different from what we’ve had before in the US. We just want it to be universal.” In fact, Zelleke pointed out, Thomas Paine had advocated for a guaranteed minimum income in the US as early as the end of the 18th century, to be funded by inheritance taxes on landowners.
Bringing the story back to the near-present day, the fourth panelist, Keiko Sono of Creatives Rebuild New York, presented a slideshow documenting her on-the-ground experiences coordinating the Yang Gang campaign in the Hudson Valley. Perhaps the time is now riper, finally, for the approach that her candidate was advocating.