With more than 100 guaranteed income pilots happening across the country and unprecedented cash payments distributed by the federal government during the Covid-19 pandemic, guaranteed income is gaining attention and energy. In March of this year, the Aspen Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program (EOP) hosted an event, The Promise of Guaranteed Income: A New Tool to Improve Jobs and Empower Workers, to discuss the history, present, and future of guaranteed income in the United States, and its potential role in advancing good jobs across the labor market. Moderator Natalie Foster, president of the Economic Security Project and Senior Fellow at the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative, first grounded the discussion in the Initiative’s recent brief on the potential of guaranteed income to empower workers and improve job quality and stories from workers who leveraged unrestricted cash payments to start their own businesses, eliminate debt, and navigate unemployment in a turbulent labor market.
Foster connected the dots between the historic investment of cash transfers in workers and families during the pandemic like the stimulus checks, the expanded Child Tax Credit checks and pandemic unemployment assistance and the coinciding increase in labor market activity and rising wages. The Great Renegotiation—as C. Nicole Mason dubbed the period of time where there were historic numbers of quits, even higher numbers of hires, and increased organizing activity during the “Hot Labor Summer” made famous by Amazon warehouse worker Christian Smalls—came on the heels of these pandemic-era cash transfer investments.
“People use unrestricted cash payments to build the life they want for themselves and their families, a life that includes work that is meaningful and provides security.” – Natalie Foster
Panelists then discussed the connections between worker power, job quality, and guaranteed income. Dorian Warren, Co-President of Community Change, opened by calling back to the history of Southern Black women on welfare in the 1960s organizing through the National Welfare Rights Organization. These organizers, such as Jonnie Tillmon, advocated for a guaranteed annual income to make up for historical exclusion from welfare and other social safety nets. Erica Smiley, Executive Director of Jobs With Justice, built on the conversation about organizing, speaking to the key role labor and worker participation have had in building and maintaining a strong democracy.
“ With guaranteed income, we have to keep working hard. But this time, we can work hard to innovate. We can work hard to vote, participate, and contribute to civil society.”- Erica Smiley
Next, panelists shared the various ways local governments and community-based organizations have been leveraging cash programs to build worker power. Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui of Cambridge, Massachusetts described how the city’s pilot, Recurring Income for Success and Empowerment (RISE), began with repurposed Mayor’s Disaster Relief Funds to provide direct cash assistance to residents impacted by COVID. Residents also invested funds into advancing professionally and pursued new economic opportunities. Smiley then pointed to how cash can facilitate organizing, as through the crowdfunded Coworker Solidarity Fund, which allowed more low-wage workers to organize during the pandemic. Furthermore, Smiley and Warren noted that guaranteed income could especially give care workers, who are often faced with limited organizing opportunities, leverage to demand higher pay and better working conditions. Guaranteed income also helps give economic value to the unpaid care performed primarily by women, Black people, and immigrants.
“People are frustrated in their jobs and with the rules of the economy because they do not have the freedom to care for kids, elders, or their broader community in the ways that they want to… Guaranteed income responds to that fundamental desire to care.”- Dorian Warren
The conversation then went on to address some common critiques of guaranteed income. One argument against guaranteed income is that it subsidizes poverty wages. Warren discussed how data from pilots shows a correlation between guaranteed income and improved wages and working conditions. Smiley noted that the pandemic revealed who benefits from not having guaranteed income. According to Smiley, low-wage employers blamed federal stimulus packages for labor shortages and labeled workers as “lazy.” However, Roy Bahat, Head of Bloomberg Beta, argued that guaranteed income can ultimately benefit employers. For example, a guaranteed income would lead to more consumer spending, innovation, and less turnover. According to Bahat, “The thing that I say that’s counterintuitive for business leaders is that weak workers are bad business. A society where working people suffer is also bad for business… Having a more stable world, having a more stable society, but also having workers have more power at this moment in time is a thing that would be good for companies.”
In closing, panelists talked about how we can build political will for a federal guaranteed income. Warren emphasized that we need to mobilize and broaden the current base of support for guaranteed income to build political will. Smiley concurred, raising that we need workers to be organized to win and that historically, workers have called for expansions of the social safety net. Roy added that business leaders are not a monolith and were involved in early funding for guaranteed income, and must work together with labor organizers. Mayor Siddiqui also shared practical tips for making guaranteed income a reality in other cities by involving key stakeholders such as recipients and community partners to ensure that guaranteed income does not mitigate other government benefits.
“We have been able to build momentum so that guaranteed income doesn’t end with this pilot.”- Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui
This conversation evoked a powerful vision for the future, in which the U.S. would have a new social contract, where all people have economic stability and can use their voice to enact change. In this vision, guaranteed income could shift power back to communities (including, but not limited to, low-income, BIPOC, and women and femme people), who have long been exploited for their labor and resources. Panelists encouraged audiences to talk about this vision and guaranteed income more broadly, to continue growing momentum and working toward solutions for a future of shared prosperity.
The panelists could only share a portion of their insights on the potential of guaranteed income to improve job quality and transform this country, but raised many important questions and ideas to continue to explore. For those who missed the event, please watch the full video and download the transcript here.
Tweet .@AspenJobQuality convened experts to #talkopportunity about the history and future of guaranteed income. Read insights from @roybahat, @MayorSiddiqui, @SmileyJWJ, @dorianwarren, and @nataliefoster.
Tweet “People use unrestricted cash payments to build the life they want for themselves and their families, a life that includes work that is meaningful and provides security.” – @nataliefoster @EconomicSecProj
Tweet “With guaranteed income, we have to keep working hard. But this time, we can work hard to innovate. We can work hard to vote, participate, and contribute to civil society.” – @SmileyJWJ @jwjnational
About the Author
Mayerly “Maya” Smith is a research associate with the Economic Opportunities Program (EOP), whose work supports EOP’s Future of Work Initiative. Learn more about Maya.
The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.