The Big Idea: Rachel Swirsky
For a country with an at-best-precarious social net, the idea of a Universal Basic Income can be beguiling. But how would it work in hard reality? Rachel Swirsky has decided to take a swing at giving an answer to this in her new work, January Fifteenth. And if you think this would be easy to answer… think again.
(Disclosure: The book’s cover uses a quote of mine, speaking positively of the author’s writing.)
Sometimes, when we ask what looks like a single question, we’re actually asking dozens or hundreds or thousands.
What would it be like if the United States of America had Universal Basic Income?
Tens of thousands of questions.
What kind of Universal Basic Income? How would it come about? How would it be regulated? Dispersed? Who determines eligibility? Who determines amount? Are there restrictions for felons? Does it come along with other social services or replace those systems entirely? Is there a trial run? How long will it last? Can it be canceled? What institutional forces might try to influence the project or hijack it for themselves?
Beyond logistics–and there are so many logistics–lie the lives inflected by innumerable variations. How do you raise children who have their own universal basic income? How do these new assets affect people in institutional care? In prison? In the military with a foreign girlfriend overseas?
When I began writing January Fifteenth, I started with one question, and ended up with more tangled stories than I could write.
Universal Basic Income is a guaranteed, recurring governmental stipend that’s issued to every citizen, regardless of need or status. I’ve been referring to it loosely as a “national minimum salary paid by the government.”
It seems like a pretty cool idea.
Cool doesn’t always mean good, let alone feasible. Those are different questions. But at face value–the idea that every citizen should have access to a minimum wage that will fund their essential needs? I like that idea very much.
When I started writing this novella in 2017, my husband and I had just left California where he had been working his entire career. His job had great security on an excellent salary. Walking away seemed ridiculous, if not impossible. Unfortunately, the rewards came alongside some serious difficulties, and eventually my worsening health made staying impossible.
We knew that moving without a job offer in hand would be difficult, but we didn’t realize how rough things would get. It took my husband three years to find full-time work, and another two years after that (until, essentially, last month) to find a job in his specialty.
During my husband’s interminable job search, as I struggled to increase my freelance income, I found myself tantalized by the idea of UBI. We were lucky enough to have Obamacare to see us through between COBRA and my husband’s new job coverage, but there were still so many possible financial spike pits that kept our nerves jangling.
At the same time, it was very clear to me exactly what UBI couldn’t offer us in that position. If all we’d needed was money, we could have kept sitting pretty in California.
Money wasn’t sufficient, but it was necessary.
I think that’s the dream of UBI: what if everyone could have what’s necessary?
Hundreds of thousands of questions, representing hundreds of thousands of points of view. Ultimately, I had to pick four.
How can UBI help families in crisis? To me, the single mother escaping abuse has always been the archetypal reason for welfare–at least, ever since my twenty-years-older cousin applied for welfare so that she could leave her husband when he started hitting the kids. Like my cousin, the first narrator of the novella, Hannah, is a single mother of two escaping an abusive ex-partner, Abigail. UBI got her and the kids out of the house, but can anything stop Abigail from stalking them across the country?
Who does UBI leave behind? The second narrator, Janelle, is a freelance reporter raising her orphaned little sister. In her younger days, she wrote essays about how UBI alone couldn’t resolve the Black/White wealth gap. Nowadays, she’s stuck doing the same banal UBI fluff stories over and over because news aggregators won’t work with reporters who have controversial opinions. What is she supposed to tell her little sister when Nevaeh finds those old essays and wants to advocate for reparations?
What does it mean to waste money? Olivia, the third narrator, is a wealthy college student whose peers think of the day people pick up their UBI as “Waste Day.” Are they right? My aunt who used to be a slum lord would think so; she told me once that giving money to poor people was a waste because if they knew how to do something with money other than waste it, they wouldn’t be poor. On the other hand, my first reaction when I heard about UBI was to chafe at the idea of giving money to people regardless of need; wouldn’t that be a waste? Would people waste their UBI money? Would it matter if they do?
How could bad actors take advantage of UBI the way they take advantage of other social services? Sarah, the novella’s fourth narrator, is a pregnant teenager trapped in a fundamentalist polygynous cult. In the real world, such cults use welfare to “bleed the government beast” and fund their human rights abuses, including child marriage and claiming benefits for abandoned boys. UBI has helped keep Sarah captive, but can it also help her get out?
Politics favors simple answers for obvious reasons. Is UBI a good idea? Yes or no? Does it help people or not? Is the money worth it or isn’t it?
I don’t know the answers, but I suspect they aren’t simple.
As I wrote in the author’s note to the book, my best prediction is money can make life easier, but it can’t solve everything.
Also, I’m definitely wrong about something.