Wealth inequality rates in the US are at some of the highest levels they have ever been.
As we move into the future, experts suspect people with expendable, low-paying jobs will slip even further into poverty as robotic automation leads to increased unemployment.
But there is hope: Over the last year, a form of wealth distribution known as basic income has caught the attention of politicians and leaders around the world.
Its premise is radical though straightforward: Through reorganized tax codes, governments would send all citizens regular monthly checks to cover basic expenses, regardless of their other income, in order to prevent people from slipping into poverty.
In the long run, advocates claim, societies that adopt basic income should become healthier, happier, and more prosperous.
Most discussions about this approach live in the realm of fantasy or ‘What if?’ But if you ask the people who have been following the trajectory of the basic income conversation since Richard Nixon first proposed a version of it in the 1970s, it’s the way of the future.
Scott Santens, a basic income advocate and the recipient of a $1,000/month basic income from the crowdfunding site Patreon, says he believes a large-scale plan will likely be in place by 2030. And if the universal basic income (UBI) crowd makes an especially strong push, it could arrive even sooner.
“I do think it is possible to advance this timeline, such that UBI is a major issue in the 2020 election, and people could be receiving $1,000 per month (in 2016 dollars) by the mid 2020s,” he tells Business Insider. “But that will require a lot of people really making a strong, concerted effort for that to happen, in a way reminiscent of the 1960s movement for civil rights, but for economic rights this time.”
It’s a timeline agreed upon by several other UBI proponents, including Dutch journalist Rutger Bregman, author of “Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek.” Bregman says UBI will arrive on a wide scale between 2026 and 2031, or 10-15 years from now.
“In this time of Trump and Brexit, it’s clear to me that progressives need some bold new ideas,” Bregman tells Business Insider. “Old-school redistribution, workfare, and dreaming about full unemployment won’t do.” Radical times could call for radical measures.
Two other UBI experts Business Insider spoke with also upheld the 10-15-year timeline: Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union and author of “Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream”; and Jim Pugh, CEO of ShareProgress and co-founder of the Universal Income Project.
Stern predicts that in the next five years, cities will start experimenting with a UBI for children, in which governments give families vouchers to use at daycare facilities. That would offer more security and stability at home.
Pugh, like Santens, says creating a nationwide plan by 2030 will demand continual support from the UBI community. He points to the ongoing experiment put on by Y Combinator (YC), Silicon Valley’s largest startup accelerator, as a bellwether. Right now, 100 families in the Oakland area receive between $1,000 and $2,000 a month.
If the plan does in fact grant people newfound freedoms, YC will move on to conduct a longer experiment that lasts for five years and involves thousands of people nationwide. Pugh says state governments will then turn the results of that research into policy, likely within the next two to three years.
Interestingly, the man behind Y Combinator’s UBI experiment, its president, Sam Altman, is less certain about when the free money will come rolling in. Altman’s prediction: Artificial intelligence will replace so many jobs and create so much excess wealth, that governments will have no choice but to implement UBI sometime between 2026 and 2116 — a 90-year window.
Altman isn’t alone in hedging his bets. Karl Widerquist, political philosopher at Georgetown University, says UBI could come as soon as 2017 or 2018, but could also fall back into obscurity like it did after Nixon’s plan died, and not re-emerge for another century.
“Things were very close in 1970,” he tells Business Insider. “Had things gone a little different, we might have had a basic income in the United States in 1973. But they didn’t.”
Ultimately, trying to predict when anything will happen is a fool’s errand, Widerquist says. The best anyone can do is guess and hope for the best. But given the deepening divide between America’s haves and have-nots, plus the looming robot revolution, the US might someday find there aren’t many other options.
We may still be in the realm of “if” with basic income, but we’re edging ever closer to the world of “when.”