October 20, 2020; Vox
The coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic crisis has brought forth a necessary debate on the need for universal basic income (UBI) to reduce systemic inequities. Vox recently published a useful analytic map of places around the world that have implemented basic income practices and outcomes. Looked at from that distance, basic income is effective in reducing inequities depending on the money source (whether is private or public) and political intent (how it was structured).
Sigal Samuel, the staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect project, found that when nations commit to a basic income program, people’s health, happiness, education access, and economic situation tend to improve overall. Most programs have been on a trial basis, and the “largest and longest experiment” is currently in effect in Kenya, where more than 20,000 people in 245 villages are paid 75 cents per adult per day, as a lump sum at the end of the month. Studies led by GiveDirectly have shown significant economic benefits, including job production, thus contradicting common criticisms that Basic Income would discourage people from working. The money source is GiveDirectly, a charity organization funded by corporate and philanthropic donors, as well as USAID.
Basic income in the US has been tested in several regions and gained prominence in recent political debates around the presidential election. COVID-19 brought forth a pledge from 11 mayors for guaranteed income through the Economic Security Project, funded by the philanthropic sector. The mayors’ pledge to use basic income to supplement “the existing social safety net” and as “a tool for racial and gender equity” makes a reference to the Alaska Permanent Fund as a successful example, but if we are talking about structural changes, we need to take a deeper dive.
Most critics of UBI are conservative economists and politicians claiming that families unable to meet basic needs (food, health, education, housing) do not prevail in this world from a lack of will instead of opportunities. They say UBI would essentially make them “lazy.” That criticism lacks obvious historical analysis of the structural systemic inequities that places people in a vicious circle of poverty, where whole families inherit deprivation and lack advantages that their critics enjoy. Advantages, it must be said, that were most likely derived from the underpaid or slave work, land, and resources of poor people’s ancestors. The long analysis is necessary, as advocates like the Movement 4 Black Lives delineate very clearly that a “minimal livable income” is meant to offset the “structural racism [that] has shaped the rules of our economy since the founding of the US.”
Which brings us back to the Alaska Permanent Fund, which, although it claims to have lifted 15,000 to 25,000 people out of poverty annually since 1982, sources all its revenue from oil, mines, and gas exploitation. The fund is Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act’s child, which in 1971 was enacted to take control of 44 million acres of tribal land.
Essentially, Alaska’s basic income program is deeply rooted in colonial usurpation of land from Alaskan indigenous people who for centuries depended on a subsistence economy. Many of them still do, despite the absence of indigenous sovereignty in a state where almost half of all federally recognized tribes live. As Native Peoples Action explains it so powerfully in a recent essay for Nonprofit Quarterly magazine:
While Alaska Native people once stewarded the entirety of what is now Alaska, the amount of land in Tribal ownership now is just a small fraction compared to that owned by federal and state governments, churches, private entities, and Alaska Native corporations. […] Colonial government systems continue to criminalize our customary and traditional ways of life. Alaska’s laws and state constitution do not recognize Tribal sovereignty or our customary and traditional life ways, forcing us to fight for our rights to steward our own lands, animals, and waters. Instead, state government and educational systems recognize non-Native “pioneers” and more recent newcomers as key figures in Alaska’s history, essentially leading to Indigenous erasure.
One must also question Alaska Permanent Fund’s claims in its ability to reduce poverty that is measured from a capitalist “pro-development” bird’s-eye view (more specifically, the percentage of per-capita personal income) without taking into consideration Alaskan Tribal ways of life. Anti-colonial analysis leads us inextricably to see that polluting indigenous land or fueling climate change and thus extirpating people from their land is, in the long run, more detrimental than depriving them of $1,000-$2,000 checks, depending on the oil or gas prices that year. It is detrimental to their homeland and their identity as protectors of Mother Nature.
This is not to say that the Alaska Permanent Fund should be eliminated, but there is a critical question of sovereignty—or lack thereof—of how that fund is managed and warped by political decisions.
Now, compare this to another basic income program led by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) in North Carolina. It has provided each enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation between $4,000 and $6,000 per year since 1997, and as much as $12,000 in 2016, benefiting close to 16,000 people. Its revenue source? The Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel on tribal land. Although the decision to open a casino was controversial among members, it was a Tribal Council decision that, at its core, holds significant value on indigenous sovereignty. Its Tribal Council admits the dangers of an overdependence on gaming revenue and the need to diversify its economy, but as ECBI has lifted its people out of poverty it has also seen a strengthening of Cherokee pride on its heritage. Among its many future endeavors, it includes, for example, a Trout Hatchery Research and Educational Center to “supports traditional Cherokee values because of its strong connection with the land and commitment to stewardship of the homelands of the Cherokee.”
In essence, as UBI programs arise in the US and other parts of the world, the source of that revenue needs to be carefully considered in order to avoid perpetuating historical systems of oppression.—Sofia Jarrin