Lee studies universal basic income

Michael Sprague
Copy Editor

Associate professor of public administration Soomi Lee spoke to an audience of nearly 30 people about the historical context and public attitudes towards universal basic income in the President’s Dining Room Nov. 20. 

Universal basic income is a periodic cash payment delivered unconditionally to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement, according to Lee and the Basic Income Earth Network. 

“It’s kind of a social security for all, everyone has a minimum amount of money constantly flowing in,” Lee said. 

She clarified the universality aspect of universal basic income and the difference between it and other conditional benefits where people must be at, or below a certain threshold. 

“[Money] unconditionally delivered to all adults, regardless of their income level, their gender, whether they hold a job, are looking for a job, there’s no such thing as eligibility,” Lee said.

Lee’s lecture, titled “Attitudes Toward Universal Basic Income and Welfare State in Europe,” was based on a research article of the same name published in Basic Income Studies, a peer-reviewed journal that explores different aspects of basic income. 

While universal basic income has recently seen more media exposure and is well referenced amongst notable Silicon Valley billionaires and some politicians.

Lee said the concept is not new.

Different economists and thinkers throughout history including Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry George, all supported various forms of basic income. 

She explained in the 1960s Richard Nixon attempted to pass a form of basic income, called a “negative-tax.” Nixon’s idea was that instead of people who were low-income paying taxes, they would instead receive money from the government.

Lee recognizes that Universal Basic Income is still in the conceptual stages and financially too expensive for the United States. 

“Universal Basic Income is very expensive, the whole federal government budget (excluding state and local) is about $4.3 trillion,” Lee said. “If you give everyone $1,000 per every single person, then that’s going to cost about $3 trillion.”

Matthew Witt, professor of public administration, explained during the discussion portion of the lecture that in the past Americans had the tax rates needed to make something like UBI fiscally viable.

“We’ve been here before. We’ve taxed the top end 90 percent of their income,” Witt said. “There was no revolt, republicans weren’t saying no, it was understood to maintain an economy at 4 percent increase per annum, this is what we have to do.”

“We were building bridges, hospitals, schools. We were expanding our industry we needed people to work,” Witt said.

Lee emphasized that UBI is not a remedy for all of society’s issues, rather it is an idea that everyone in society needs a certain level of income to survive.

In spring of 2018 Lee taught the University’s first course on Universal Basic Income, an elective course offered through the honors department. The course examined UBI in terms of its potential effect on social, economical and cultural issues in society. 

“I want to generate debate in our community at La Verne, about our future, basic income, or other alternatives in this changing labor market and economy,” Lee said. 

In addition to teaching a course on UBI at La Verne, Lee is organizing the North American Universal Basic Income Conference to be held next year at Hunter College in New York. Five students from Lee’s inaugural Basic income class have volunteered to help organize and market the conference and will be invited to attend the event.

“We’re fortunate to have someone like Soomi at the University of La Verne, who blends analytic treatment to the very important questions of our time,” La Verne Academy Professor Jack Meek said. 

Michael Ojeda, sophomore biology major, previously did not agree with UBI but changed his mind after researching current entitlement programs. 

 “The welfare system we have right now is completely broken. It just doesn’t work. There’s still poverty rampant around the country,” Ojeda said. “Out of all the systems I’ve seen like raising minimum wage, or the other solutions proposed, I thought that universal basic income was the most fair and best system to fix at least most of the problems we have right now.”

Professor of Humanities Al Clark spoke to his students after the event about the economical and moral questions around universal basic income. 

“As a historian, anytime we’ve gotten anywhere near the kind of income distribution that we have today, that is to say where there’s the one percent and all the rest of us…We’ve had a revolution,” said Clark. 

“It behooves us all to try to find a way to make it possible for everybody to live at least some kind of level so they’re not on the streets and they aren’t hungry,” Clark said. 

Sophomore political science major Alexis Figueroa had not heard of universal basic income before the lecture, but did not agree with the concept after seeing the presentation. 

“It just doesn’t really seem realistic. I feel like there’s always going to be issues with it. Looking at just how our welfare system now and how many people take advantage of it,” said Figueroa. 

Figueroa said the concept depends on a question the nation faces about what type of labor market and economy it sees for itself. 

“Do we want where our country is flourishing economically where everyone is working, everybody has as part in it. Or do we want people to just sit around and have an income, and just live with what is given to them?” Figueroa said.

Michael Sprague can be reached at michael.sprague@laverne.edu. 

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