On March 27th, President Trump approved a stimulus package that will give every American who makes under $75,000 a one-time cash payment of $1,200. Individuals earning under $99,000 will receive incrementally smaller amounts and families will receive an additional $500 for each child. This virtually unconditional cash payment from an infamously conservative government seems like something out of an alternate political universe. Yet it also somehow fits with the increasing number of post-pandemic events that suggest we’ve been unknowingly cast in an episode of Black Mirror.
As an American, I never imagined that I would receive an unconditional cash payment from my government. Our social welfare system is continuously critiqued and challenged by conservative politicians. Only months ago, the Trump Administration implemented a regulation to disincentivize non-citizens from collecting public benefits, such as basic food or housing assistance. The most extensive welfare option – universal basic income (UBI) – has only entered the fringes of American political discourse in the last year.
Universal basic income recently gained prominence as the central platform of former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Despite gaining national recognition, UBI faced a steep uphill battle towards acceptance given America’s almost worshipful belief in financial self-reliance. While universal cash transfers seem an impossible policy aim in Fox News America, there is both precedent and proof that cash transfers benefit US communities.
The book Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman details existing cash transfer systems, from Alaskan oil dividends to the distribution of casino profits within a Native American tribe. Bregman also highlights President Richard Nixon’s plan to implement a basic income for Americans in 1968. Given this broader historical context, it becomes clear that both liberal and conservative politicians previously considered universal cash transfers a policy option. Only with America’s increasing political polarization has cash transfers and UBI been considered a socialist initiative of the far left.
Yet in a COVID-19 ravaged world, formally concrete perceptions about what is and is not possible have been thrown out the window in the chaos of an unprecedented global health and economic crisis. Three ginormous stimulus bills have been rapidly passed with more in the making. Additional cash transfers are on still on the table. The ultimate impact – and even the total cost – of these stimulus packages are unknown. A massive national experiment is underway, and I suspect no one knows where we’re heading.
Personally, I’m glad the government is providing swift and virtually unconditional payments to Americans. I would prefer if the relief was more specifically aimed to those in need but understand there isn’t time for a more targeted effort. However, the government’s $1,200 payments pales in comparison to its $500 billion bailout for corporations. I can’t help but wonder if Republicans seek to buy my acquiesce with a one-time check while funneling government money towards corporations, a la the 2008 financial crisis. Additionally, a one-time payment of $1,200 is still a far cry from a universal basic income that would offer steady income over time.
My cynical side also wonders if the political leadership is motivated by protecting the economy rather than alleviating individual suffering. Americans go through personal financial and health crises daily in the United States. Endless GoFundMe campaigns to crowdsource the cost of cancer treatments or insulin are testament to the fact that our current health system threatens lives. The only difference now is that these personal crises of simultaneous financial and health breakdowns are occurring on a massive scale.
The United States’ barebones welfare system has also contributed to the current catastrophe. Rising costs of living and a criminally low federal minimum wage combined with unaffordable healthcare means that families are less resilient to financial and health crises. It is the government’s obligation to ensure that they never leave Americans in such a vulnerable position ever again. After the emergency phase of the pandemic is past, the government owes us nothing short of a complete overhaul of our welfare system.
Colossal social and economic upheaval presents the opportunity to reformulate our society and reassess our values. It is undoubtably scary times. However, I find hope in the thought that our collective reckoning with the economic and health crises will force us to acknowledge that similar personal crises must be met with compassionate policies.
I dare to hope that Americans’ prudent spending of their stimulus checks and the resulting collective benefits will convince politicians to support welfare policies going forward. I also dare to hope that Americans’ personal experience receiving emergency assistance will broaden popular support for social safety nets and affordable healthcare. I even dare to believe that recent events will quicken universal basic income’s transition from being perceived with faint suspicion to serious consideration in American political discourse. Dare to join me?