SIEGEL: Consider UBI’s interaction with American cultural values

UBI warrants a more nuanced deliberation as it relates to work ethic in order to garner more support

The concern that many people will refrain from searching for employment with a subsidy is not unique to UBI — means-tested welfare programs present this moral hazard too.

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In his article in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller contextualizes the debate on universal basic income, framing it around the historical development of the idea of a guaranteed income for all. In examining the growing appeal associated with a disruption in the existing system because of shifting job opportunities, Heller acknowledges the danger of equating bipartisan support to similar factors of motivation on each side, as well as the economy’s role in providing disparate opportunity and choice. Heller ultimately supports the idea that UBI, though “not a magic spell,” may be a step in the right direction. While I agree with Heller’s overall positive review of UBI, he falls short in providing an adequate analysis of the value of work inherent in American culture within this framework. In order to garner more support for such a revolutionary social insurance policy, advocates of UBI need to offer a more comprehensive discussion on work incentives and how the policy may affect such in the context of innovation. 

Many advocates of UBI omit any meaningful consideration to the value of work incentives, focusing largely on financing and associated costs, inequality, uncertainty and the anticipation of technological efficiency. While these factors are undoubtedly integral in this debate and have a major stake in policy formulation and implementation down the road, omitting a more nuanced angle concerning our cultural and moral fiber is problematic. 

Americans are generally concerned about work ethic, placing a high margin of value and social capital on work. Whether this is a healthy, sustainable lifestyle is up for debate but there is a general consensus that work is a source of pride and valued at levels that greatly surpass those of other countries. A 2014 Gallup poll reported that full-time U.S. workers, on average, work 47 hours weekly, with only 8 percent of full-time employees working less than the standard for full-time employment of 40 hours. Let me put this in context — in Europe, employees have the right to work no more than 48 hours a week, and in reality employees from some countries work closer to 35 hours a week. This goes to show that our nation’s perception of work is an integral part of our culture — thus, the issue of subsidizing leisure, a leading argument against implementing basic income as a social policy, warrants deeper consideration. 

We often talk about the hesitation with giving “junkies, alcoholics, scam artists” monthly checks, as this may lead to the promotion of those activities we generally condemn as unhealthy and unproductive. However, what about those people outside of this category who may be discouraged to work as a result of UBI? The concern that many people will refrain from searching for employment with a subsidy is not unique to UBI — means-tested welfare programs present this moral hazard too. Research that examined the impact of UBI on a region in Alaska suggests that “unconditional payments to residents had no real impact upon full-time employment levels, although they did find that part-time work increased by about 17%.” These findings pacify this concern of work incentives, as they show “that the possible reductions in employment seem to be offset by increases in spending that in turn increase demand for more workers.” Whether these findings are transferable is unclear, but a deeper investigation into the analysis of their potential impact in the context of UBI implementation could ignite a new wave of understanding for guaranteed income policy. In illuminating this side of the debate that universal basic income does not unequivocally discourage meaningful work, advocates of UBI can effectively garner more support for this policy in the hopes that those concerned about this moral hazard and its effect on our history of valuing hard work will be appeased.  

While I believe in the capacity for universal basic income to propel humanity forward and bridge widening gaps of inequality in an environment with ever-changing labor markets, the policy begs for a more nuanced consideration of the effect such a change may have on one of America’s most treasured values — work ethic.

Lucy Siegel is an Opinion Columnist and was the 128th Opinion Editor of The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

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