When the idyllic upstate city of Hudson, New York, launches its basic-income pilot program in late September, it will become one of the smallest U.S. cities to embrace a policy once seen as far-fetched or radical.
“Basic-income” programs — designed to dole out direct cash payments to large swaths of people, no strings attached — were, until earlier this year, largely the realm of Washington, D.C., policy wonks and West Coast futurists.
But amid the pandemic and a global recession, both basic income and a basket of related policies have gained unprecedented momentum, surfacing everywhere from Capitol Hill to community Zoom meetings in cities like Hudson.
At their most targeted, such programs essentially function as a type of cash welfare, providing a flexible, fungible benefit to low-income Americans. In broader and more ambitious proposals, so-called universal basic-income programs would send cash to everyone regardless of income level — a feature intended, advocates say, to promote consumer spending, lessen the stigma of welfare and protect all workers against future economic upheaval.
Critics from both sides of the political spectrum have historically challenged such programs on the grounds that they cost too much money or don’t always reach the neediest recipients. But since the pandemic began decimating entire sectors of the U.S. economy, that logic has shifted.
In June, a coalition of 11 Democratic mayors from across the country announced the launch of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a national campaign that plans to invest in basic-income pilots and lobby for related policies at the state and federal levels.
Fourteen additional mayors have since signed on to the project, representing cities as diverse as Shreveport, Louisiana; Holyoke, Massachusetts; and Los Angeles. In July, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey pledged $3 million to the group to pay for future pilots. Writing in Time to announce their coalition, the mayors called basic income “a policy solution that is as bold as it is innovative and as simple as it is ambitious.”