The Humanitarian Shift: How the UBI Debate Has Fundamentally Reshaped Welfare

by Dimitrije Jovanovich

In the eyes of many Americans, 2020’s most overarching achievement (if you could even call it that) is somewhat unrelated to the public health crisis caused by COVID-19. Instead, it has to do with the fundamental restructuring of the discussion surrounding welfare in the United States, specifically in conversations concerning the fiscal responsibility of the federal government during times of grave economic struggle. As presented by increased calls to give millions of struggling Americans necessary stimulus checks to survive the economic fallout of COVID-19, the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) system has been brought to the forefront of public discourse as a potential means to partially eradicate the rampant income inequality that has plagued the United States since the 1980’s and has only worsened throughout the pandemic. But the new welfare debate begs the following question: what is the role of UBI in the future of the U.S. economy?

“The humanitarian shift” is a philosophical discussion regarding the fiscal role of the state in ensuring the financial wellbeing of its citizens. In the traditional American sense, the so-called “Protestant work ethic” has dominated most discussions regarding social welfare, as exemplified by the common usage of the phrase “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” by a fiscally conservative segment of the population. However, as of 2020, the issue of social welfare programs and the extent to which the federal government should take part in these programs has visibly shifted away from that of social welfare existing solely as a temporary support system for those who are financially struggling, to one in which the state should be redesigned to ensure that the rampant effects of increased income inequality is kept in check. 

During his 2020 presidential campaign, Andrew Yang often stressed that, even before COVID-19 was an issue, UBI could be utilized as an economic checks and balance system for the economic trainwreck that mass deindustrialization has inflicted upon innumerable parts of the U.S., primarily centered around once thriving Rust Belt states such as Ohio and Illinois. In reference to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yang’s desire to implement a UBI system is more feasible than ever before. According to’s Local Economic Impact Report, “more than 97,966 businesses have permanently shut down during the pandemic.” When also taking into consideration that billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk (alongside other members of the top one-percent of the one-percent) have made $3.9 trillion over the course of the pandemic, it takes little imagination for one to realize the sudden validity of many pro-UBI arguments. Wealth in the United States (and, as a result, all real political power) has become even further centralized, with little if any of it trickling down to the working class whose labor is required for the procurement of such vast wealth. The average Amazon warehouse worker, for example, makes a mere $35,000 annually, while Jeff Bezos makes roughly $8.99 billion monthly. Federal and state tax codes permit the exploitation of immoral loopholes (which explains why, in a cliched statement, Amazon paid no federal income taxes last year) and present no way to “trickle down” the wealth through any non-government means. And now, as markets once populated by a diverse smattering of mom-and-pop shops and start-ups run by twenty-somethings begin to disappear, the multi-billion dollar mega-conglomerates of our day will gobble up whatever’s left of it for their own gain. In this sense, UBI is not just another suggestion for pragmatic economic reform, but a type of economic justice that has long proven its necessity, and has subsequently been a long time coming.

The recent push towards a UBI system also presents a paradigm shift in many people’s attitudes away from the traditional “equality of outcome vs. equality of income” debate and toward one centered around “the right to prosper vs. the right to struggle”. Although such a paradigm shift might come off as a bit hyperbolic (or apocalyptic, depending on your perspective), the conversation surrounding welfare hasn’t changed in any fundamental way since the Clinton era of the 1990’s. Instead of welfare being viewed as temporary assistance for those in economic need, why can’t it instead become a system in which, as former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli put it, “power [government] has only one duty: to secure the social welfare of the People.” In an increasingly unequal society, where poverty is on the rise alongside crime, is it not the moral course of action to at least advocate for the social fabric of this nation to be mended through the equitable treatment of all Americans through economic means, even if such equitable treatment is very minor? We must ponder such questions as a nation, and before you tell your struggling neighbor to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” while giving him a disdainful look, keep in mind that you should first look to see if he has any bootstraps on to begin with.