Mark Zuckerberg wants it. Elon Musk says we need it because of robots. Joe Biden rejected it. Ben Sasse thinks we should be talking about it. Milton Friedman sort of liked it, and even Charles Murray thinks it may be a good idea. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke favorably about it as a potential solution to poverty. Switzerland voted it down, and Finland, Canada, Kenya, and California have experimented with it. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang made it the centerpiece of his 2020 Democratic presidential campaign—[yes, that seems like a long time ago!] What is it? Universal Basic Income or UBI. Our recent experience with the payment of stimulus money during the COVID pandemic has brought UBI into the realm of national possibility.
Universal Basic Income is perhaps the hottest new public policy idea, and it has the potential to impact poverty, alter the connections between businesses and workers, overturn the current structure of the welfare system, and change the relationship between citizens and their government. It is also an issue that doesn’t fit into our normal left-right political boundaries—people from both sides of the political spectrum can be for or against universal basic income.
But is it a good idea, and does it fit with Biblical principles? How would UBI affect our responsibility and ability to help others in our roles as workers and businesspeople? Christians need to be informed about the costs and benefits of UBI plans, and they should take the lead in examining all of the possible impacts of universal basic income programs.
Perhaps the most-often cited argument for UBI programs is their impact on poverty. If a UBI program provides a generous amount of income per individual (for example $12,000 per person per year), proponents believe that it is self-evident that the condition of the poor will be improved. A related argument is that UBI programs will lead to a more equitable income distribution for a society. Again, proponents view this as self-evident as the funds for UBI programs would ultimately come from wealthier individuals while all individuals will receive payouts. Others see the provision of a universal basic income as a basic human right.
One of the most powerful arguments against universal basic income programs is their costs. In her 2016 presidential campaign, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explored the idea of creating a national fund that would provide a payout to every citizen. She decided against it for several reasons, including that she “couldn’t make the numbers work.”
A second argument against the provision of a universal basic income concerns the reduced work incentives that can result from such a program. Theoretically, labor economists describe what is known as a negative “income effect,” which suggests that any additional non-earned income leads to an increased demand for leisure, and therefore reduced work hours. From a fiscal standpoint, workers pay taxes and support social welfare programs like Social Security. If individuals do end up working less, the viability of these programs comes into question. Former Vice-President Joe Biden took a somewhat different approach when he argued against UBI, quoting his father: “a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about your self-respect. It’s about your place in your community.”1
Biblical principles can help us begin to evaluate universal basic income programs. First, work was part of God’s good creation and a significant element of God’s intention for humankind. The Bible extols the virtues of work throughout both the Old and New Testaments. We know that our work now resides under the curse of sin and that many workplaces need significant improvement. But we also know that work can redeemed through the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ, and we see that work is anticipated in the new heavens and new earth when our Lord returns. Any possible diminution of work by the provision of a universal basic income must be seen as a substantially negative feature of the program.
Second, the effects of the fall should give some real pause to some of the optimistic projections made by proponents of UBI who suggest that providing people with a guaranteed income would lead to widespread beneficial results. We need to at least entertain the possibility that this income could lead some to engage in behaviors that are more negative if work becomes less necessary. A biblical worldview also realizes the God-given nature of government and its responsibilities to promote justice. However, we know that we are not to put our faith in government. If a universal basic income leads individuals to depend more upon government for their livelihood, there is a substantial likelihood of long-term disappointment.
There is little argument among Christians about the necessity for helping the poor, while the best methods of doing so, however, are still controversial. Since the Bible’s admonition in Deuteronomy 15:4 that “there should be no poor among you,” Christians have struggled with how to make this happen given the pervasive impact of sin in our world. Perhaps the most common reason that people become proponents of UBI is that they believe it will help alleviate poverty. After all, the program provides people with more money. Whether or not UBI programs would actually reduce poverty in the long run is unclear. If people choose to work less and invest less in human capital formation, it is possible that UBI could even increase poverty. There has been substantial criticism of current welfare and income support programs on the basis that they create dependence and negatively impact work incentives. Books like Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts also discuss some of the unintended effects of providing too much help to people, even those who appear to need it.
Perhaps the most significant question concerning a universal basic income program concerns its impact on workers’ perceptions and behavior regarding calling and vocation. With guaranteed income provided by the government, will a worker be as likely to pursue their God-given callings, which for many individuals exist in the labor market? Having meaningful work is a way that we can provide for our families as well as the needs of our neighbors, while hopefully bringing honor and glory to God in the process. Of course, not everyone is called to be a worker for pay–rest and non-work activities are important too. One of the arguments often made for UBI is that individuals would be more able to pursue non-market callings in the presence of UBI payments. For example, men and women might be able to spend more time at home with their children given the financial support that a UBI program provides, or a person might be able to volunteer more with a non-profit organization.
At the same time, work is an important way that we serve others; we help others and provide for their needs, while others provide for ours. John Calvin put it this way: “we know that men were created for the express purpose of being employed in labour of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God than when every man applies diligently to his own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the general advantage.”2 Lee Hardy describes Martin Luther’s views as follows: “the order of stations in the earthly kingdom has been instituted by God himself as his way of seeing that the needs of humanity are met on a day-to-day basis. Through the human pursuit of vocations across the array of earthly stations the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the sick are healed, the ignorant are enlightened, and the weak are protected. That is, by working we actually participate in God’s ongoing providence for the human race.”3 I believe these are beautiful sentiments. If a UBI program takes individuals away from their callings to work and support others, we will all become more impoverished, and not only financially.
One of the main realizations of the Reformation was that a life of contemplation was not to be preferred to a life of good work. God can be served in a variety of professions, and all jobs are equal before God. Menial jobs are not less valued in God’s eyes, but in the presence of a UBI, they may be valued even less than ever in the world’s eyes. Would a UBI program lead workers to have more opportunities to find jobs in line with their true callings, or would it lead to people eschewing work and spending more time playing video games? There will certainly be some of both of these outcomes. A UBI could certainly help people to attain some of their personal goals more easily, but I believe a strong argument can be made that our society would benefit from more people working rather than less.
The real possibility that universal basic income programs could be instituted in the United States raises some significant questions for Christians. If the funds for a UBI program are raised from workers and business owners through taxes, and are then distributed to those who choose not to work, the program is likely to be quite contentious in nature. Relying on the success of large corporations as a major revenue source for UBI is problematic in many ways. Universal basic income programs could also cause a major change in an individual’s relationship with the government. Governments have already made the case that institutions that receive government funding of almost any type need to adhere to various regulations. Christians have sometimes found themselves on the negative side of such situations. Is it too much to believe that in the future, government UBI payments to individuals could also be linked to certain behaviors?
We know that work is a central feature of our existence as human beings and of our calling in God’s Kingdom. Does a UBI remove the curse on our work? Or does it reduce our inclination and ability to serve others, and instead promote a greater interest in serving ourselves? For some, UBI might lead to new startup businesses, new creativity, and new hobbies. Nevertheless, it seems likely that for many people, work will become less important in the presence of a universal basic income. For many this is one of the chief benefits of UBI. But for those that do work and who own and manage businesses [and pay taxes], the financial rewards of such work may diminish. A UBI program may cause us to trade opportunities with meaningful employment for more opportunities for leisure. There are very interesting tradeoffs inherent in UBI programs, and the real opportunity costs are uncertain.
Ever since we were young and wanted an allowance from our parents, many of us have considered the impact of some type of basic income. Parents are often split on this issue, with some saying yes, and others requiring chores for any money provided. When it comes to the provision of a universal basic income, much is not yet known. Christians must speak to the importance of work in the Kingdom, and examine carefully any program that reduces the likelihood that people participate in gainful and valuable employment that serves God and our neighbors, while providing stable income for our families.
- Joe Biden, “Let’s Choose a Future That Puts Work First,” https://www.bidenschool.udel.edu/bideninstitute/research-policy/biden-institute-blog/Let%E2%80%99s-Choose-a-Future-That-Puts-Work-First.
- Quoted in Lee Hardy, The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, p. 56.
- Lee Hardy, The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, p. 47.