People on all sides of the political spectrum are beginning to talk about the idea of basic income — the idea of paying, without conditions and independent of all other earned income, a monthly stipend just large enough for the meeting of every citizen’s basic needs, like food and shelter.
Talking is extremely important for everyone to be doing, but as the saying goes, it’s also cheap. So as the world talks about it, I’m already living it.
Since January 2016, I’ve been getting a basic income made possible by the crowdfunding platform Patreon. I now have over 300 patrons, allowing me to start each month with $ 1,000 — just at the poverty line in the US ($ 12,060 per year). This is a floor of economic security, and I’m free to earn as much additional income as I choose.
While headlines about machines eliminating jobs provoke feelings of anxiety in many people, I’m not one of them. I feel a sense of security, since I know there’s always going to be a bare minimum income on the first of each month.
Understanding the true meaning and importance of security was the first thing I learned from obtaining my own basic income, but it wasn’t the last. Here’s how having basic income affected events in my life over the past year and a half, and what it further revealed to me about the idea.
Basic income as infrastructure
Starting at $ 1,000 instead of $ 0 each month not only provides security, but also functions as a kind of liquid infrastructure. Since it can be used to buy anything, it can take any form, and when something critical is unexpectedly lost, that object can be more easily replaced.
I experienced this when a tornado unexpectedly showed up near where I was driving and broke a window in my car. Replacing that window was something I couldn’t avoid, and it wasn’t covered by insurance.
That’s the kind of sudden unavoidable expense that can cause rapid downward spirals for many. Just over half the population of the US can’t handle a $ 400 expense without going into debt. With basic income, replacing my window was just a matter of shifting discretionary income priorities instead of skipping bills or going into debt.
Basic income as space
Earlier this year, I lost one of the closest friends I ever had. He was my dog and we’d journeyed through life together for almost 13 years. He died on a Friday night, and that Monday I was so grateful to have a day to grieve by myself. I couldn’t imagine being forced to work that day, and it made me wonder just how many people out there are going through matters in their lives that basic income would help with mentally.
Someone need not be self-employed for basic income to give them that extra bit of courage to tell their boss they need to take the day off. But without basic income, they would go to work and be practically worthless, their minds firmly elsewhere instead of on the job.
Sometimes we just need space. The unconditionality of basic income helps in creating the space necessary to just be for awhile.
Basic income as duty
In 2016, for the first time in my life, I received a jury summons. It involved giving up four full days during the week in service to my fellow citizens, and it was entirely unpaid.
From early in the morning until later in the afternoon, I sat as part of the jury pool, all of us waiting to be called into a courtroom for possible selection. If we were chosen, only then would we get paid — and it would be just $ 25 for one day.
But all of us had to take that time off anyway, selected or not, paid or not. Here in Louisiana, employers are only mandated to pay for one day, but we serve a minimum of four days. That meant some people in the room with me were using paid vacation days. Others were using sick days, and still others were just there, actively prevented from earning any money.
The right to trial by jury is important; it’s also our constitutional right. But that right imposes a duty on all citizens, and we pay in the form of time.
During the days I waited around in the basement of my city’s courthouse, the price I paid was different than my fellow citizens, because it didn’t impact my sense of security. Someone in that room might have been worrying about how they’d pay all their bills that month thanks to losing four days worth of income. That person wasn’t me.
I also felt a sense of pride, not anger, at being called to serve. That made me wonder: Are people always talking about how to get out of jury duty because universal basic income doesn’t exist?
If we all chose to compensate each other for citizenship, would that help change the way we look at our duties as citizens? Would we take greater pride in jury duty and even the act of voting if we recognized that citizenship itself is a form of work? I think the answer may be yes.
Basic income is more than just extra money. It symbolizes what money can become, and that includes space.
It’s about citizens reflecting on what the word “money” really means, and what we owe ourselves as citizens of a great nation built on securing our rights as human beings.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.