Is America Ready for a Guaranteed Basic Income? 

This interview by Brigid Schulte was broadcast by Slate magazine’s Better Life Lab podcast on May 10, 2022.

Brigid Schulte: Most of the time, when people talk about social policy and programs, we tend to hear from the advocates and the experts. But part of what we do here at the Better Life Lab podcast is to also highlight the voices of people directly affected by those programs and policies. So, to get an insider’s view of what it’s meant to receive guaranteed basic income payments, we’ll hear next from John Summers. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For several years, he was the editor in chief of a well-regarded national magazine. But in 2016, family circumstances compelled him to leave that job. John is now a single father of two children from home. He runs a small research institute called Lingua Franca Media. John and his kids are able to live in Cambridge thanks to a local affordable housing program. And he’s a participant in Cambridge Rise, a guaranteed basic income pilot program.

John Summers: I tend to apply for everything. So, I noticed there was an application for Cambridge Rise. As I filled out the survey, I became curious about the intentions behind the program; it seemed less interested in financial worthiness and more interested in social things, more of a survey about well-being. That intrigued me. And then some time later, I found out our family had been selected.

BS: So how is it that you qualify for a guaranteed basic income program?

JS: Well, I’m, a full-time, single father of a daughter of 13 and son who is 10 and has seven medical diagnoses, the most prominent of which is autism. Having a son with autism has drastically changed the financial calculus of my life, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s completely impoverished me. In the first year after leaving work and becoming a stay-at-home Dad, my income dropped by more than $100,000.

BS: Was it was it impossible to combine your work and the level of care that your son needed?

JS: Yes, it was. It was not even a question; there’s no daycare or afterschool programs for kids like him. I need to be here for him. There’s nobody else. It’s not impossible to work from home, but it is impossible to work outside the home. So, it needs to happen here.

BS: Mm hmm. So, with those kind of heavy care responsibilities, getting a guaranteed check, so to speak, or guaranteed income every month, what is that meant for you and your family?

JS: This might not sound like much, but it’s been a pretty big morale booster when you’re basically stuck, and usual mechanisms of the social safety net either don’t work or extract more than they give. Having something outside of that rubric has meant a lot, actually. We were able to, before the rupture in the family, purchase a home under the city of Cambridge’s affordable housing program. The basic income guarantee gives $500 a month, which is almost half of my very affordable mortgage.

BS: You were talking earlier that it’s not only about the finances, but that there is a social element to it or well-being. And when we talked the other day, you said to me, the program means that there are people out there who care about us.

JS: That sounds pretty sentimental now that you read it back to me.

BS: But I actually thought it was lovely.

JS: I’m not saying it’s not, but in the last two years of this pandemic, that proposition—there are people out there who care for strangers—has been pretty sorely tested in lots of ways. It’s been pretty dispiriting, in my opinion. But universal basic income sort of breaks the relationship between personal worth and economic standing in the community. The mantra of the so-called American dream is you get what you deserve, and you deserve what you get. Universal basic income doesn’t imply anything about our family’s personal value in society, and it doesn’t judge any specific cost that I’m using it for. I’m using it for help with caring for my children. But that’s not required. You can use it for what you want to use it for. You don’t have to bargain with the payment mechanism.

BS: The other thing it gives you, it does it give you more of a sense of dignity? Does this feel different? Sort of a more human.

JS: No, it doesn’t feel more human, and I don’t think that it comes with any kind of endorsement of dignity. I think it’s neutral about all those questions. What it does then, it leaves you freed up to find your dignity in a sphere other than your income. Universal basic income is the only low-income program we have that does not to manipulate or maneuver us into any particular sphere of social value, I would say. And that’s important. The money is detached from social control.

BS: You know, in the national conversation, politicians who tend to be opposed to this, you know, they talk about fraud and how people will use it. And the research shows that that families are really using it in the way that you are to pay bills, pay mortgage, to invest more in their children. What do you think that says about this larger conversation?

JS: I think it says that people need the money.

BS: Right.

JS: I would just hold out the idea that the value-neutrality and the freedom gained are goods in themselves. Because then it’s less an instrument of social policy, which, let’s face it, not everyone is going to universally agree on.

BS: Mm hmm. You know, in thinking about the national conversation, I think the stereotype, the assumption is that, you know, these basic income programs, you know, are for people who may not have education or who may not have had some of the advantages that you’ve had in your life.

JS: Well, there’s no surer way to poverty in America than taking out student loans and going to stay for a Ph.D. in the humanities. Trust me on this. I was the first in my family to go to college. I grew up in a small town, and then to everyone’s surprise, not least mine, I kept going. I received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Rochester, New York, and got a job as a half time lecturer at Harvard. And I stayed in Cambridge.

BS: Circling back to universal basic income or guaranteed income, as you kind of think out to kind of what might be happening five, ten, 15 years down the line. What role do you think guaranteed income could or should play in in how we think about the future?

JS: It’s a hard question. I see it as a kind of lifeline, you know, a kind of assurance, not insurance, I think, but assurance against whiplash, which is what I’ve experienced in lots of different ways, where you expect one thing to happen and then the opposite happens to your disadvantage economically. We used to have a stratum of middle-class professionals and a notion of a career. That’s gone. That sounds antiquated at this point. With a career, you have some predictability, some ability to plan. As a career professional, you can expect certain rewards to follow. You can conceive of a future. No more.