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Universal Basic Income Would Change Everything For Parents

Parents and students are working hard at changing the world.

The child care allowance. A universal basic income. A few Democratic 2020 candidates for the presidency have brought up versions of the idea, like Andrew Yang, who wants to give every American $1,000 a month. But for many, the conversation seems like a far off idea, a pie-in-the-sky policy tantamount to throwing money out of a window. For many others, however, the policy is achievable. 

Just look at Stockton, California, a city that is piloting a program in which 125 families get 500 dollars a month. California, too, just expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit as a way to give families (and stay at home parents) more money for their work (namely, the work of parenting.) The idea isn’t so far off, after all, says Natalie Foster, the cofounder and co-chair of the Economic Security Project.

To Foster, one of the major problems with our economy (besides flattened wages and wealth inequality) is that we don’t think of parenting or being a full-time student as work, despite the fact that they are huge drivers of our economy. But what if we treated parenting as work? What if we paid parents to stay at home with their kids? We asked Foster about a guaranteed income — and why it’s a good idea for American families. 

Talk to me about your work. 

I co-founded the Economic Security Project three years ago, to understand what a guaranteed income and cash transfers would look like in the United States because of the rising costs of living in the United States and the increasing inequality. 

A quarter of the American workforce works full time, but still can’t pay the bills, and are on some form of public assistance. Inequality is at 1929 levels, right before the Great Depression. The economy is out of balance.

Is this idea a new one?

Simply put, a guaranteed income is the idea that people should have an economic floor from which they start their lives. It’s an idea that gained a lot of traction in the 60’s and 70’s, when Martin Luther King wrote and talked about the idea, to President Nixon, who almost passed a version of the idea through Congress.

It’s went away during the Reaganomics era and during “trickle down” economic years. But it’s come back. [Over the past few decades,] we had a grand experiment in privatizing the market and trickle-down economics and it didn’t work. People can’t make ends meet, despite the fact that the economy is growing. So we are really interested in how to rebalance that. 

Is there anywhere in the United States where the guaranteed income is being studied or experimented with?

A young mayor who is about to be a parent himself is launching the first modern demonstration of a guaranteed income in the US. That’s Mayor Tubbs, of Stockton, California.

He is running this demonstration, in part, because he believes it’s something that will be the future of the social contract. 125 families in Stockton receive $500 a month with no strings attached, to use how they need, in their daily lives. It’s simply demonstrating what is possible when people have breathing room of cash. And we’ve seen real interest in policymakers picking up on that idea. In the 2020 cycle, we’ve had several presidential candidates with similar bills like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. But it’s also happening at the city and state level. Mayors and governors are talking about how they can reform their own tax code and put money back in people’s pockets.

So, the Overton Window has shifted, I think in part because of modern visionaries like Mayor Michael Tubbs. 

In your vision of a guaranteed income, does this money go to everyone? Or does it go to people who work in nontraditional forms of labor like parenting their children?

At ESP, we created the “cost of living refund.” This is a policy idea that puts money back in people’s pockets using the existing tax code. For every family that makes under 75,000 dollars in the United States, they would receive monthly income paid out in the way that taxes work today. So it uses the existing infrastructure, and includes many more people than are currently included in the part of the tax code called the Earned Income Tax Credit. 

We’d use the EITC and expand it to more people, including those who give care in non-traditional ways. Like students, who are doing what society asks and studying to better themselves. Neither of those are traditional jobs that pull in income, but it is work. That should be valued by society. We think that modernizing the EITC to expand the definition of work is one of the first steps we can make to start to value all kinds of work. 

How much money would the average stay at home parents make for their work under expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit?

That is a policy choice. That could be turned down or up depending on what sort of policy makers want to do, and what pressure they are feeling from constituents. However, the child allowance, if you’ve heard of it, is a very similar idea.

What is a child allowance?

Every developed nation in the world offers a child allowance, which is a monthly stipend to parents to raise children. We are the only nation that does not. There are a ton of interesting bills around this that would start to support parents with cash and raising children.

The science behind this is extraordinary. When people have more income, they are able to eat more healthily, have time to be with their children, all kinds of things that allow for breathing room in parenting and family life. We’re also really interested in the idea of a child allowance.

California just passed an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which we’re very pleased with. It expands the part of the tax code that puts money back into people’s pockets up to a billion dollars. It also includes a stipend for parents. So these two ideas — the child allowance and a guaranteed income — have a lot in common, and can work together to support a much broader understanding of work than our current tax code, which just looks at traditional jobs. 

Why do you think caregiving has been left out of the employment conversation? Why do you think we don’t pay parents?

We’ve made policy decisions over the past several decades that reinforce that those who have money and capital continue to do well, they can work, they are free to choose whatever job they want, and their money makes money for them on the stock market. Those who do not are only able to work at their hourly value. For the past fifty years, we’ve made sure that American workers haven’t received a raise. Wages have flattened while we’ve had a booming economy. We have an economy that will work for a very specific type of work and jobs and not others.

So, we say, let’s take a step back. Everyone deserves an economic floor. All of our policy centers around jobs within the American economy. So let’s have a broader understanding of what that work can look like. This is not just for parents. This is for caring for an elderly parent, which is increasingly a huge part of the lives of many American daughters in their 40’s and 50’s across the United States. It also includes caring for the disabled. All kinds of caregiving is happening, formally and informally. Let’s support it all.

To me, this seems like one way of many ways we should be supporting parenthood.

We should be supporting caregivers, broadly. I have young children and I deeply feel the stress of trying to make it all work. I know that for many people, that is compounded by elderly parents and the fact that the price of child care is untenable for so many people. Policy ideas that make it easier to care for kids and to afford care for kids and elderly seems really important. 

How would a few extra hundred dollars a month really help families in a material way?

In the Stockton experiment, there are 125 families getting 500 dollars a month with no strings attached. We started doing interviews with some of the first participants. They’re about five months in, and have received five checks so far. Parenting, and the time to parent, has been a thread among many of the participants. It’s one that we weren’t actually anticipating.

One man talked about how he was forced to work side jobs to make ends meet. But because of the extra 500 dollars a month, he was able to cut back on the extra work and spend more time with his kids. He talked about going to the pool with his kids, for the first time in a very long time. He was surprised to see that they knew how to swim. 

He realized how much he’d missed because he’d been forced to work. That breathing room — that policy — like a guaranteed income or a child allowance — what that offers a parent is so important for families across the United States.