WASHINGTON – People are still scratching their heads over the city of Stockton, California, which went bankrupt only a few years ago, instituting a new program called Universal Basic Income, which will pay low-income people $500 a month, no questions asked.

How do “crazy” ideas like this get started? Who is behind promoting notions like this? Who’s funding new ideas about better ways to redistribute wealth?

The answer isn’t surprising really. Rich people are.

People like those in the Economic Security Project, including like Facebook’s Chris Hughes, Dustin Moskovitz, Google.org and an organization they funded called GiveDirectly, a platform for direct charitable payments to impoverished people in Kenya. GiveDirectly has received funding from the Economic Security Project, which is also backed by Roy Bahat of Bloomberg Beta, Felicia Wong of the Roosevelt Institute, Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures, Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter, Y Combinator president Sam Altman, Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase, Institute for the Future fellow Natalie Foster, former U.S. labor secretary Robert B. Reich and New America Chief Executive Officer Anne-Marie Slaughter.

The project’s donors and advisers also include Instagram co-founder Mike and Kaitlyn Krieger’s Future Justice Fund and the Goldhirsh Foundation. The Hopewell Fund acts as fiscal sponsor. And, on the steering committee of the Economic Security Project is a familiar name – Andy Stern, president emeritus of the 2.2 million-member Service Employees International Union. His new book, in fact, is called “Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Restore the American Dream.”

But how do you take an old idea like giving money away and give it a fresh face?

Ask Sandra Haynes, a financial-systems analyst at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

She found an announcement of a story-writing competition. The instructions were: “Imagine a world in which all people receive an income to cover their basic needs.” It was a competition sponsored by the Economic Security Project, which has a budget of $10 million to promote the idea of giving money away – especially governments, of course.

“I saw the competition and knew it was a story I wanted to write,” said Haynes.

Last month, Haynes won first place for the national story competition “Into the Black,” co-hosted by io9, a science-fiction and fantasy blog, and, yes, the Economic Security Project, a national organization that researches and campaigns for access to Universal Basic Income. In fact, the project is spearheading the experimental pilot program in Stockton.

Haynes’ story, titled “Rounding Corrections,” was one of 650 submissions, and her prize endowed her with a basic income of her own — $12,000 to be handed out in monthly increments.

As a result of the work of the Economic Security Project, Universal Basic Income has become something of a rage. It has even become an acronym – UBI. In practice, it’s quite simple. Cash payments are delivered directly and regularly to all citizens, regardless of their income or employment status. The concept has been tested in different parts of the world, from Finland to rural Kenya to Oakland, California, as a way of ensuring that all people have access to food, shelter and other basic necessities.

Haynes cites the invaluable service of stay-at-home moms and dads as an example of people who receive no reimbursement or income for their work — but who contribute greatly to society simply by parenting. “We never see those costs in any accounting, but that’s a very valuable service; it’s a flaw in the plans,” Haynes said.

The concept of UBI imagines a society in which every citizen gets a check to survive, and can spend that money freely while working to earn more. Right now, most of the pilot projects only give the money to low-income people. But the big sell behind the Big Idea is giving everyone $500. Who’s going to oppose that?

Even some conservatives and libertarians are embracing the idea as a way of dismantling the welfare state – if you can believe it.


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