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Stanford scholar explores pros, cons of ‘basic income’

Jennifer Burns, associate professor of history, says a universal basic income program could help protect workers who have hit rock bottom.

(Image credit: Courtesy Jennifer Burns)

BY CLIFTON B. PARKER

Given the flux of American politics right now, an idea like ‘universal basic income’ could gain political traction, a Stanford historian says.

Stanford scholar Jennifer Burns, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and an associate professor of history in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences says such a program could help protect workers who hit rock bottom in an age of technological disruption.

A basic income – also called basic income guarantee, universal basic income or basic living stipend – is a program in which citizens of a country receive a regular sum of money from the government. Tech leaders Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have floated the idea, and the city of Chicago is considering such a proposal as a way to reduce the disruptions of automation in the workforce.

Burns researches and writes about 20th-century American intellectual, political, and cultural history and is currently writing a book about the economist Milton Friedman, who supported the idea of a universal income.

What would be the benefits of a universal basic income if it were to become a reality?

The most attractive aspect of universal basic income (UBI) is that it can serve to underwrite market participation, in contrast to other welfare programs that essentially require people to not be employed to receive the benefit. Some programs even require participants to have essentially zero assets in order to qualify. In effect, the programs kick in when people have hit rock bottom, rather than trying to prevent them from getting there in the first place.