Does more income make you more free? Does no income make you not free? Across America, the last six months have been filled with fatigue and frustration in the wake of cataclysmic symptoms of systemic failure. Working Americans’ lives are riddled with injustice as a shoddily managed pandemic rages on and “public servants” brutalize their constituents, both economically and physically. Nowhere is this neglect more evident than on the phone with hundreds of thousands of people all trying to file for state and federal unemployment benefits-- no doubt a phone queue full of anger, anxiety, and desperation, only to be met ultimately with bureaucratic obstinance.
We are half a year into a pandemic that has left nearly 15 million Americans unemployed. There has been only one $1200 federal stimulus check. State employment departments are inundated by record amounts of newly filed claims. This, along with ancient computer systems unable to correctly process complicated claims, like furloughed workers or non-academic workers in education, has left many without any form of income for months.
One of the largest contributors to these failings is the privatization of public welfare. Many states privately contract agencies to supply phone workers that help claimants file, certify, and adjudicate their claims. This past summer, I worked full-time for the agency contracted by the Illinois Department of Employment Security and witnessed firsthand the atrocities of the welfare system in America today.
In Illinois, the system for filing claims is the same software that has been used since the 2008 recession. It takes anywhere from several days to several weeks, even months, for claimants’ conditional documents to be uploaded to their files, a common blockade to getting desperately needed payments. Getting in contact with someone that can actually help one’s case is next to impossible, the phone agents are sloppily trained and largely unprepared for such a taxing position.
Until about July, the only way to speak to an agent was by calling a 1-800 number and waiting on a 3 hour hold with about 200,000 other irritated Illinoisans. The majority of calls were transferred out “to another department that can better assist you with your claim.” There were many reports of calls being dropped immediately after transfers, putting callers back at square one-- trapped in a Twilight Zone cycle of hold music and inexperienced agents. Inefficiency is the keystone of American bureaucracy.
This COVID-19 inflamed dysfunction is not unique to Illinois, Oregonians are trapped in a very similar narrative. As of Sep. 22, Oregon has 49,000 claims held up in adjudication, largely crippled by its archaic computer system, much like Illinois. Hundreds of thousands of claimants in Oregon had to wait weeks and months to see their first unemployment checks first filed for back in March. Tens of thousands have yet to receive any benefits at all.
Oregon has introduced a new prepayment program for those unlucky claimants, paying them before they get approved in adjudication, under the condition that they pay it back if they are ultimately not approved to receive the benefits. This is a fine enough bandage in these unprecedented circumstances, but begs the question, what would regularly implemented poverty prevention look like? What if, instead of someone paying back debts to the government, the government pays someone simply for being a citizen to negate the existence of owed debts entirely?
This is essentially the concept of universal basic income (UBI), an economic movement backed by moderate and leftist economists alike. UBI is based on the premise that as we are all occupants of the land, all are equal and thus deserving of a minimum government allowance. Universal basic income recently reentered American mainstream political discourse during Andrew Yang’s 2020 presidential bid, his UBI plan earning him the support he garnered prior to dropping out in February.
Many who oppose the implementation of some sort of universal income model argue that no such program could ever function in the United States; when in fact, the state of Alaska established the Alaska Permanent Fund in 1976, which gives every Alaskan resident $1-2k annually for sharing the land and its resources. Alaska has one of the lowest poverty rates in the country.
Universal basic income has been tested in cities across America and formally studied in Canada, with its Mincome project in the 1970’s. The study indicated that the guaranteed income decreased financial stress among the sample population and increased overall wellbeing. Most that participated in the study chose to remain employed, disproving the common counterargument that a UBI program would decrease work ethic. This misconception is rooted in tainted capitalist perceptions of work and productivity, equating employment with work when work can include more invaluable facets of human life, such as hobbies or raising a family. These forms of work are often neglected in a culture that associates successful work with wages.
If everyone received a monthly or annual stipend from the federal government, poverty could be prevented. Instead of the current dilapidated welfare system that keeps the nation’s poorest poor forever, there would be promotion of wealth and prosperity regardless of pre-established financial standing. Welfare would no longer be a system of charity for the poor, but rather one of solidarity amongst every worker.
In an America where modern households are forced to work several full-time jobs to secure even the most basic needs, we can see that employment alone is no longer an effective solution to poverty. One only needs to understand the hellish American welfare system to see that it cannot continue in this fashion, that radical changes (like in many other American systems today) must take place before even more are left destitute on the other end of eternal hold queues.