August 8 2023
In June I went to the Basic Income Guarantee Conference in Chicago. I flew out the same day we published our proposal for community led pilots in Jarrow and Grange, East Finchley – which is fitting, because a lot of the inspiration for the proposed project came from across the pond.
Over 100 pilots of unconditional cash have been announced since 2017 in the USA and many of these have progressed to putting cash in people’s pockets. You can explore the pilots, in the USA and globally, via the Stanford Basic Income Lab map. The Guaranteed Income Pilots Dashboard displays spending data from 7,341 people involved in completed pilots, showing that nearly 70% of this income was pumped back into the economy when spent on retail, services, food and groceries.
Chicago has three of its own basic income pilots, all of varying scales and backgrounds – through which nearly 8,500 people in the region have received a basic income in the last few years. The Chicago Future Fund is a community-led programme delivering a basic income to formerly incarcerated people, while the other pilots are government led. The first launched by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot for people facing poverty most impacted by the COVID pandemic. The other, ongoing programme aims to provide Chicagoans with economic security and independence. The goal is to make this programme, the Cook County Promise, permanent. This commitment was repeated at the conference by Mayor Brandon Johnson.
Overview of Chicago basic income pilots
I have had my eye on the basic income movement in the USA since the launch of the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration in 2019. This was the first project to put cash in people’s pockets – 125 residents of Stockton, California receiving a basic income of $500 a month for two years – and was initiated by former Mayor Michael Tubbs, the city’s first black mayor and the youngest person to hold that office. Inspiration came in part from Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who had once said “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective – the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income”. We spoke to Mayor Tubbs in 2021 and I would highly recommend watching that conversation back here.
Demonstration is a keyword for the Stockton project and many of the others that have followed. These projects are not just about research: they’re about demonstrating what the people leading them and participating in them already know, if you guarantee people an income their lives will improve. As Mayor Tubbs said when we spoke to him, “you can’t pull yourselves up by the bootstraps if you don’t have boots”.
Basic Income Conversation has sought out opportunities to demonstrate the impact of basic income in the UK at the earliest opportunity since the project started. The best way to communicate how a basic income would work is to show it. But more importantly, the road to a universal basic income for all in the UK could be a long one. It does not feel right to go about the work of securing that policy without putting money in people’s hands along the way, particularly those at the sharp end of political, social and systemic crises.
Many of the projects across the USA are targeted. There are schemes that supply cash to young parents, artists and pregnant Black and Pacific Islander people. The projects are usually also targeted at people from these demographics with low existing incomes. This is partly because the focus is more on the guarantee of unconditional income than universality, but also because these projects have limited budgets and cannot replicate the clawback effect of taxation for higher earners receiving a basic income.
Our pilot proposals for Grange and Jarrow are not targeted by income or by group. This decision came from the community consultation done in these areas. The universal nature of a basic income was seen as important, a feature to stand by and to test. People also felt that the best way to make the pilots feel fair was to make sure that anyone could put their name forward to participate.
Key insights from the conference
The Basic Income Guarantee Conference was a massive gathering of the basic income movement in the USA – piloters, organisers, researchers and campaigners. I’ve spent the best part of 5 years working on basic income, meeting as many people as possible, learning about projects focused on the policy and making progress. It was an incredible experience to walk into a room where I knew barely anyone or anything!
There were nearly 100 speakers at 20 sessions over two days, which were attended by over 400 people in person and online. The sessions focused on everything from messaging to pilot design and welcomed politicians like Toni Preckwinkle, the president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, and key organisations shaping the basic income movement like Economic Security Project, Jain Family Institute and Income Movement.
You can watch many of the sessions back here.
From my outside perspective, and perhaps biased by what we’re trying to achieve in the UK, a few key themes jumped out at me.
1. Telling the right stories
An incredible amount of work has been done to assess effective narratives and share these in a format that can be picked up and used by the people pushing for a basic income across the USA. Sessions covered the types of narratives we want to change, transforming the debate from cash to the future cash creates, ways of shifting narratives and value frames for basic income. A great session on this can be watched back here, and the Economic Security Project has fantastic guides on talking points and storytelling.
Much of this narrative work can be used in the UK, but some of the messages and technical components of the debate differ due to the different political and policy landscapes. We have our own talking points document you can find here and last year published the report Winning the Vote with a Basic Income: Evidence from the ‘red wall’. The Survey Results section outlines narratives developed with people in ‘red wall’ areas who initially opposed the idea of basic income. These are a powerful tool for us here in the UK!
But regardless of any differences in content, the most important point here is that telling the right stories, and telling them well, is key to making the case for a basic income. As USA-based basic income advocate Scott Santens said at the recent Basic Income North Conference, “One story is all someone ever really needs… The challenge of the right story is finding the right one for the right person.”
2. Projects that build power
One of the sessions started by challenging the panellists to complete the sentence “if money is power…”. We know money is power. Basic income and the many projects delivering a basic income to people are about making sure that people have access to that power. Not mediating it, not keeping it within organisations, but paying it to people without conditions. The basic income projects across the USA are building power because people who have their basic needs met are powerful. Or more accurately people who are no longer stripped of their dignity by systems that deny them access to resources that should be theirs by right are able to prioritise things beyond survival. These projects build individual power.
When done right, they also build collective power. Many sessions centred around a specific pilot and what had been done to ensure the pilots were community developed or community responsive. Instigating, developing and delivering a pilot builds relationships, infrastructure and experience – social capital. As a result of these projects in these communities, power is built. This sets them up to influence policy.
Sharing resources, experience and support across pilots has also built power. The exponential pace at which pilots have popped up across the country since the first in Stockton has been no accident. It has been a deliberate tactic, the more pilots the better. The closer to home the stories from people receiving a basic income the more effective. The knowledge developed through these projects is quickly shared and that has been the key to success.
3. Creating a movement
There has been an enormous amount of investment in the basic income movement in the USA. This is a testament to the quality of work there and the skill of those leading it. It is still incredibly difficult to find funding for coordination, campaigning and movement building work on basic income in the UK, so it’s easy to be jealous of the resources they’re operating with!
However, it was a relief (I think) to see that the big questions they’re grappling with are the same as the ones we always come back to here. How do we build power? What are our next steps? Who are our key audiences? What have we actually achieved? What is the most direct route to a basic income policy?
I spent the last day at Income Movement’s visioning workshop where people from across the movement came together to talk strategy. I hope as an outsider I was able to remind them how far they’ve come and the opportunity they have created. But ultimately operating as a movement is an ongoing process: convening people to identify shared priorities, communicating your mission as widely as possible and each putting one foot in front of the other, ideally in step with everyone else, until you achieve what you set out to achieve.
4. Pilots to permanent policy
It was clear throughout my time in Chicago that permanent policy is the goal. There were regular complaints that the cash transfer projects were still being referred to as ‘pilots’, not ‘programmes’ or ‘policies’. The challenge in the USA now is to drop the focus on temporary measures and move towards a permanent policy. Chicago is at the heart of that with the Cook County Promise pilot.
The exact route towards a permanent policy is still unclear. It’s a big goal and it won’t be a single strategy that secures it. The more consistent and widely communicated the stories coming out of these pilots are, the more common sense the case for a basic income becomes. With this political will builds. A collaborative approach, across a strong movement that is building power in its wake is well placed to capitalise on that opportunity.
From 0 to over 100 in less than 5 years, the world’s most powerful economy could be built around a basic income sooner than we think.
Cleo is Autonomy’s basic income lead. She co-founded the Basic Income Conversation project in 2019 and has facilitated hundreds of conversations with people across the UK – communities, politicians, policy makers and academics – with the goal of securing a basic income for all.