Universal Basic Income Is Getting a Trial in Silicon Valley

(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

A pilot program in the struggling city of Stockton, California, will track the impacts of universal basic income (UBI) on some of the city’s poorest residents this year. The no-strings-attached funding — ​​$500 per family, per month — comes courtesy of the Economic Security Project, a program co-chaired by Facebook executive Chris Hughes, and the Goldhirsh Foundation.

As it’s gained popularity in the U.S. and Europe, UBI has also gained an unlikely mix of supporters — and critics. It was part of the policy platform outlined by the Movement for Black Lives in 2016, a kind of reparation “provided to all black individuals to prevent the risks of dropping into total poverty,” as Johnny Magdaleno wrote for Next City at the time. It’s also been embraced by many, like Hughes, who are high up in the tech world. As Mark Zuckerberg writes long Facebook posts extolling the virtues of UBI and Uber execs pursue it as the answer to a system of contract-only workers and automation (that they themselves helped create), some have questioned whether UBI is simply a trendy new way for corporate heads to keep up their tax-evading, workforce-shrinking ways — without too much guilt.

Those questions could easily apply to the Stockton pilot. Time reports:

It’s no accident that much of the support for UBI comes from Silicon Valley, where the potential for mass unemployment is starker than most other places in the U.S. Major companies there are in neck-to-neck competition to create labor-saving technologies — such as self-driving cars — that will inevitably replace greater numbers of humans with automation and robots.

Stockton is a town already facing these problems — the city has been plagued by a lack of job opportunities, low wages and high housing prices as Silicon Valley exploded around it, replacing once attainable middle-class security with a job market that requires highly skilled workers and relies heavily on automation, according to KQED News. The Bay Area city even had to declare bankruptcy in 2012.

On the one hand, all those factors make the once-agricultural California city the perfect place to test out UBI.

“I feel that as mayor it’s my responsibility to do all I could to begin figuring out what’s the best way to make sure that folks in our community have a real economic floor,” Stockton’s mayor, Michael Tubbs, said in a recent interview with KQED.

And as Michelle Anderson, a Stanford law professor, pointed out to the station, cities often give money away to corporations (think: Amazon HQ2) to bring in jobs and tax revenue. Why shouldn’t they invest directly in their citizens?

“The UBI that is being proposed in Stockton now is very small compared to the big corporate subsidies that cities like that engage in,” she said.

But as Douglas Rushkoff wrote in an LA Times op-ed last year, the tech world’s support of UBI (and the support of Facebook, in particular) looks dubious when placed next to its actual corporate practices.

“I’d have an easier time accepting Zuckerberg’s proposal [as he calls on Harvard’s graduating class to explore UBI strategies] at face value if his company weren’t trying so hard to avoid paying taxes on its massive profits,” he wrote. “Where is UBI supposed to come from, after all, if not the profits that Silicon Valley companies have made by cutting out human labor in the first place?”

Critiques aside, the pilot will be fascinating to watch, particularly as the Economic Security Project gathers data on the economic and social impacts of basic income, as well as how it affects self-esteem and identity. As Dorian Warren, another of the Project’s co-chairs, recently asked KQED: “What does it mean to say, ‘Here is unconditional guaranteed income just based on you being a human being?’”

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