Universal Base Income Came to my County– It’s Not Enough, But It’s a Start

Anniversaries have a way of stirring up feelings so dormant and subconscious we aren’t even aware we harbor them, and this month, I’ve been overcome. By grief, yes, and agitation, too. Not the acute anxiety that gripped me for the first months of the pandemic, nor the exhaustion and resignation that set in over the winter, but something else, something sharper and keener: a growing impatience to come back into the world in order to tend to the people around me, and a persistent wish for our government to do the same.

Yet, like many millennials, I’ve grown so fed up with ineptitude that, even in the face of heartening news, I tend to react rather than respond, to answer earnestness with snark. And so it was when, in early February, a Universal Base Income (UBI) pilot program was announced in Ulster County, New York, where I live. The new program, headed by County Executive Pat Ryan (D), will allocate 100 applicants, randomly selected by lottery, $500 per month for a year. No strings, no requirements (including, notably, no citizenship or legal documentation needed to qualify). Just extra cash in the bank, every month.

It felt, at first, monumental; almost impossibly progressive, and immediately impactful. But then, there was the sobering reality of the terms: only 100 people out of a population of 177,000 will get the cash. It struck me as a tease, a thumb in the eye. I couldn’t disentangle my despair at the initiative’s short reach from my excitement about its arrival. On walks with friends, I chewed it over out loud, exalting the long overdue arrival of direct payments while disparaging my county’s UBI pilot as small potatoes, harping on its shortcomings rather than its merit. My disillusionment and cynicism blinkered me, hard, to the core radicality of what was unfolding. Which is this: The fact that local policymakers are both perceiving their communities’ needs and responding to our national government’s bitter divisions and resulting paralysis with something tenable and concrete—even if just a fraction of the totality of what’s necessary—is, actually, not small at all. It is, rather, enormous. Fundamental. Revolutionary, even.

What I’m trying to say is, I was wrong.

I spoke with Anna Markowitz, Assistant County Executive, who first floated the idea of UBI in Ulster County last November. She’d been closely following the UBI pilots in Finland and Stockton, California where, in February 2019 under the leadership of then mayor Michael Tubbs, 125 of the city’s residents each began receiving $500 per month for 2 years. The results, released in early March, are remarkably promising. As the pandemic raged, Markowitz began to think a similar program might make sense for Ulster County.

She brought the idea to her boss, initially proposing they restrict the program to families with children. “I’m a mom of two elementary school aged kids,” Markowitz explained. “With public schools closed, I, along with all my friends, are now paying for private childcare or daycare and have all these unexpected expenses, or we’re dropping out of the workforce because we can’t take care of our kids and work at the same time.” This relentless exploitation of primary caregivers —mothers, in particular — and the resulting desperate bind it puts them in has exploded across the media this past year, drawing heightened attention to a problem that’s anything but novel.

But County Executive Ryan pushed back, encouraging Markowitz to think more inclusively about access to such a program. After studying up, she agreed that widening the pool made sense. “There’s nobody that’s unaffected by this,” Markowitz told me. Plus, she added, the hope is for strong data at the end of the pilot year (the University of Pennsylvania will provide research support, while the county is responsible for managing the program itself) that supports continuing and expanding UBI both here and more broadly. “If we want this to work in America,” she told me, “We need to show this works in a place that looks like America. And Ulster County looks like America.”

She’s right. Ulster County is, in many ways, a microcosm of the nation: a nearly equal split between democrats and republicans; a rural county anchored by one small, diverse yet highly-segregated, rapidly gentrifying city — Kingston; a population that hovers around 20% non-white (likely an under-estimation, given the significant community of undocumented residents from Central America) compared to the nation’s 40%; and a community among whom 40% live at or below the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) threshold, a metric that “represents the minimum income level necessary for survival of a household.” (Caveat: all these stats are from before the pandemic.)

Once Markowitz floated the idea, the county acted swiftly: In February, Ulster County’s Project Resilience opened applications. “We had 2000 applications within the first weekend,” Markowitz said; and, as of March 16, more than 4200 individuals had applied. Markowitz has been both surprised and troubled by the overwhelming response. “We’ve been getting emails from people saying, ‘Please pick me, I’m a single mom!’ and things like that. It’s hard, and it really shows the desperate need.”

Parents here, like parents everywhere this year, have struggled mightily and with little, or no, support to keep them from bottoming out, both financially and emotionally. $500 extra per month is a tantalizing promise; a possible lifeline. I wondered, though, would knowing “free money” was floating around, but limited to so few, only exacerbate the existing scarcity mentality with which late capitalism has hardwired us all?

A mom I know — a primary bread-earner with a young kid, who’s both been out of work (as a theater designer) and whose husband left last spring — reflected this ambiguity back at me. Money is tight and unpredictable. She knows, though, she has the privilege of whiteness, education, and professional connections on her side, so she decided not to throw her hat in the ring for a UBI grant, even though the money would have been a game changer.

A neighbor of mine, a bi-racial Brazilian who came, with her husband, to the U.S. on a tourist visa (after the Brazilian economy tanked several years ago) and has stayed on, illegally, supporting them both with her work as a nanny, had her livelihood upended first during lockdown, then again, after sputtering back in the summer, by the birth of her first child in October of 2020. Though the margins have become frighteningly thin and neither she nor her husband qualify for any government relief, she chose not to apply because she didn’t trust that it wouldn’t, somehow, expose their status and make them vulnerable to deportation.

On the other hand, a different friend of mine jumped at the chance to apply. She is a white mom of a young child whose partner is disabled due to a progressive illness. She had to give up working outside the home two years ago to care for her partner full-time (a role for which she’s compensated by the state to the paltry tune $12.50 an hour for 40 hours a week). “A monthly payout would basically act as a secondary income for our family,” she noted. “An extra $500 a month would allow me to stretch beyond my budget here and there and spend, occasionally, at local businesses. I’d possibly even be able to start saving money again, which,” she added, “would be straight up miraculous.”

To me, it’s obvious that all of these mothers— along with many, many others—need these grants. So how can anyone decide who “deserves” it most?

In that question lies the argument for a randomized lottery selection of applicants rather than prioritizing those who fit into certain categories of vulnerability. But it also highlights the trickiness of introducing such a limited program at such a tenuous, anxiety-filled moment within a fragile and glaringly unequal system of socio-economic support. How can we expect people living — acutely or perpetually — on the brink of catastrophe to sift and self-select through this complicated tangle of value and choice? If there’s a rush for the money from those who might be able to squeak by without it, those awarded are, statistically, less likely to be the most vulnerable of all. But without the money, those on the edge might well topple off into ruin, and some will never recover. We know this because it happens all the time.

What we can’t know is who, or exactly why or how; the nuances of late capitalism are too deep-seeded and each person’s experience is too singular to their circumstances. But what’s inevitable is this: if we ask community members to self-identify as most needy or desperate, we are asking them to do the dirty, destructive work of pitting themselves against their neighbors in a scramble for scarce resources. This is dangerously counterproductive when the forces that have the power to radically transform our society — mutuality, reciprocity, care, and community — require a foundation of both true universality and also a mindset of, if not abundance, at least enoughness, in order to root and thrive.

Until the rising tide can truly lift all boats by both acutely alleviating poverty and systemically addressing its root causes — that is to say, by guaranteeing basic income for all, or instituting a successful alternative to capitalism altogether — both the competition and ambivalence will remain. If we want to protect people from having to slot themselves into a hierarchy of need, from having to play the hideous game of who’s got it worse, UBI initiatives like ours here must be translated into truly universal policy as quickly as possible.

In the midst of writing this article, everything changed: The Biden Administration announced its proposal for a $1.9 trillion relief package, including more stimulus checks for all (all who are documented, that is), and a markedly increased child tax credit. And then, with far less fight than anyone expected, the bill passed. The measures are still not nearly enough to repair the heinous schisms baked into our society, to meaningfully support families, or to account for the spectacular losses of the past year, but they are, undeniably, a start in the right direction.

I won’t go so far as to call Ulster County’s UBI pilot a bellwether — I’m neither that optimistic nor that naïve. But I am allowing myself to wonder if maybe, just maybe, a sea change — borne of desperation so widespread and apparent as to finally resound — is finally afoot.