What is universal income?

Universal income, also called universal basic income or basic income, is a term for various economic models that provide all of a country’s residents with a periodic cash allowance regardless of their employment status or other factors.

To many Americans, this sounds like a radical idea—and, indeed, universal basic income is highly controversial. Proponents claim it’s the most effective way to prevent widespread poverty. They say the current workforce is too large, and increasing amounts of automation will eventually prevent some people from finding gainful employment (for instance, autonomous vehicles may eventually make the commercial trucking industry largely obsolete).

“In the next 12 years, 1 out of 3 American workers is at risk of losing their jobs to new technologies—and unlike with previous waves of automation, this time new jobs will not appear quickly enough in large enough numbers to make up for it,” according to Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s website. “To avoid an unprecedented crisis, we’re going to have to find a new solution, unlike anything we’ve done before. It all begins with Universal Basic Income for all American adults, no strings attached—a foundation on which a stable, prosperous, and just society can be built.”

Opponents to universal basic income say it would be extremely costly and would create rampant inflation. Some proponents claim the cost could be offset by eliminating other social programs—for instance, welfare and social security—but opponents say that’s not enough.

“A check of $10,000 to each of 300 million Americans would cost more than $3 trillion a year,” wrote Eduardo Porter in a column published in The New York Times. “Where would that money come from? It amounts to nearly all the tax revenue collected by the federal government. Nothing in the history of this country suggests Americans are ready to add that kind of burden to their current taxes.”

Whether or not it’s a good idea, universal basic income has been discussed (and occasionally implemented) for centuries, and it’s currently receiving quite a bit of attention. Many countries have experimented with basic income models, including Finland, the Netherlands, Poland, and Ukraine.

In the United States, basic income proposals have been floated since at least the 18th century. Alaska’s Permanent Fund uses a basic income model, and while some residents aren’t eligible, about 630,000 residents receive the same dividend every year, regardless of age, employment status, and other factors.