I attended a national economic conference in New York in 2015, and in one of the presentations, the speaker presented the following claim: human trafficking is not so much a criminal issue as it is an economic vulnerability issue, and therefore the best tool we have to strike at the very root of the problem is a universal basic income.
This idea of a basic income guarantee — an amount of money given to all without any conditions aside from mostly citizenship (and perhaps age) — is an idea that has been around for centuries and yet only recently is really starting to noticeably catch fire in the minds of the public at large. It is being referred to in such terms as “an idea whose time has come,” “an end to poverty,” and “venture capital for the people.” Fast Company has dubbed it a “bipartisan world changing idea.” The New York Times has even asked, “Why Not Utopia?” in light of growing warnings of structural unemployment due to accelerating technological advancements like self-driving cars and artificial intelligence. Outlet after outlet is beginning to seriously discuss this policy once considered outside the Overton Window of political possibility.
So what’s all the fuss? Is basic income really that powerful of an idea?
The short answer is yes, it really is that powerful of an idea. It’s such a powerful idea for the same reason it has even been suggested in a conference full of economists as the best tool for reducing human trafficking. That reason is actually quite simple, but very far reaching. As long as we face starvation and homelessness, we are at the whims of others.
This is the face of economic vulnerability and it lies at the very heart of a great deal of systemic issues. Think for a moment about what difference it would make in your own life to be guaranteed $1,000 would always appear in your bank account at the beginning of every month for the rest of your life, no matter what you did. How would that money change your life? How would it affect the decisions you face every day? How would it affect your relationships with others from your boss to your spouse? How would it affect your choices?
Consider that word: “choice.” What is choice, really? When it comes to any real choice in life, what it all boils down to is the ability to simply say “No.” Without that ability, nothing is truly voluntary. All work isn’t voluntary. All relationships aren’t voluntary. All market exchanges aren’t voluntary. The choices we make that we think are choices aren’t truly voluntary whenever the option to say “No” is off the table. Therein lies the full potential of the idea of a universal basic income, and it lays bare the lack of power many of us are under the illusion of having. Having a basic income creates the ability to look someone in the eye who holds more power than you and firmly say, “No. Not today. Not until things change. These are my terms. Take them or leave them.”
That power only arises with unconditional access to the means of survival, which is what a basic income essentially is. As long as we are refused access to the resources required to live, we will make choices we would not otherwise make. We will do things to make money we would not otherwise do. We will say things where we would otherwise stay quiet and keep silent where we would otherwise be heard.
Italy recently acknowledged this in their call for a citizen’s income to reduce mafia power, to “remove oxygen from those who exploit the need to work and turn it into economic blackmail.” Living in a climate of perpetual shakedowns has made clear to Italians the need for the enhanced ability to decline. Without that ability, people have little choice at all but to accept exploitation as part of everyday life.
We are all making choices right now that aren’t really choices at all, and if we look around, we can begin to see them for what they truly are — compulsions. We are compelled to sell ourselves to others. We are compelled to put our trust in others. And we are compelled to hope in ways that are destructive.
Sex work is known as the world’s oldest profession for a reason, and that reason is because as soon as money was invented, there was someone wanting to obtain sex in exchange for it, and also someone who needed money to exchange for food and housing. For thousands of years, to this day, that has remained true.
In a 1998 study of 475 people engaged in prostitution across five countries (including the US), 92 percent claimed they wanted to leave prostitution but couldn’t due to a lack of money or food. In other words, potentially only eight out of every 100 prostitutes are voluntarily engaged in sex work.
“From the perspective of those we interviewed in five countries, prostitution might at best be called a means of survival: if one wants a place to sleep, food to eat, and a way to briefly get off the street, one allows oneself to be sexually assaulted.”
That prostitution appears to primarily exist as a means of escaping starvation and homelessness is additionally supported by the finding that in the US, 84 percent of 130 prostitutes living in the San Francisco Bay Area when interviewed reported being homeless at the time, or were once homeless. This is not only reported in America. In the same five-nation study cited above, on average, 72 percent reported current or past homelessness.
There are those who will look at such numbers and claim they are false — that they are created to serve an agenda that wishes to abolish all sex work. So let’s assume for a moment they are inaccurate and that the number is closer to 50 percent or even 25 percent instead of 92 percent. Just how low does that number need to get before it is entirely acceptable for that percentage of people to feel forced into sex work for lack of options?
Sex work is not a fully free choice. It is largely the means for those without means to obtain the requirements of life from those with means. And that’s exactly how it will continue to exist, until everyone is freely given access to the requirements for life.
However, sex work is also not the only way of being compelled to sell ourselves. This method of compulsion is also to be found in any job that involves accepting a rate of pay below which anyone would ever actually accept if not for the overwhelming fear of going without anything at all. The all too common belief that something is better than nothing, in a world that guarantees nothing, lies underneath every wage and salary negotiation.
For example, the movement for a higher minimum wage is gaining prominence in the national discussion as the “Fight for 15” wages on. But how many fast food workers would’ve ever accepted a lower wage to begin with, if they’d already been receiving a check for citizenship at the end of every month, along with everyone else, sufficient to cover their most basic needs? If every worker had more bargaining power as individuals, would we all be so willing to sell ourselves to so many for so little?
“The all too common belief that something is better than nothing, in a world that guarantees nothing, lies underneath every wage and salary negotiation.”
Exploitation is also not only about wages and salaries. It’s about time. How many people are working in jobs that aren’t offering them enough hours or anything resembling a sane work schedule that doesn’t vary by the week? These are manifested in the decline of full-time jobs and the rise of part-time jobs where 6.9 million workers in the US report working part-time not because they choose to but because they have to. It’s in the rise of zero-hour contracts and irregular work schedules where 17 percent of workers now report having irregular schedules.
All of this is essentially about working conditions. How many workers globally now work in jobs with conditions they would never otherwise agree to, were they armed with basic incomes they’d keep either way? How many workers would refuse conditions they personally deem insufficient if they were guaranteed a separate income stream independent of employment? When we consider a question like this, let us too consider being in the shoes of one of the employees who upon walking up to the doors of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh on April 24th 2013, wondered if it would collapse that day and walked inside any way. Is someone more likely or less likely to walk into a building they worry might collapse in order to avoid losing their job, if not walking in no longer represents the risk their families may go hungry?
These are our compulsions and they do not even stop here. Without a basic income, we also have a compulsion to believe others, taking them for their word when we shouldn’t.
As the saying goes, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Unfortunately, such victims tend to be among those most economically vulnerable. Fraud has been on the rise for decades thanks to: the technology that makes it even easier to accomplish, the incomes that have been falling for decades when adjusted for inflation, and the dramatic shift in federal manpower post-9/11 from fraud to terrorism. As a result, we’re now spending $50 billion a year on scams, and even worse this rising level of fraud prominently includes “last dollar” fraud, a moniker for the type of fraud aimed at taking the very last dollar from the hands of those most in need of every dollar they can get.
For every ad on the internet that claims you’ve won an iPad, for every request for personal information to claim the airline tickets you never bought or package you never ordered, for every coupon claiming to be worth $50, for every amazing deal where something can be purchased at 50 percent off or more, for every job offering a high wage for seemingly little effort and especially in the comfort of one’s home, there’s a scam artist looking to exploit trust. And there’s also someone willing to make that leap of faith because if it just so happens to be true, there’s a light finally shining at the end of a very dark tunnel.
Having no other real choice but to trust doesn’t stop at individual scammers. It extends also to private corporations and government itself. Consider the trust we put in companies like Google to stay true to their word of “Do no evil”, so that we may continue happily using their free products as fewer and fewer people can afford to pay for all that isn’t free. Consider how we learned that trust had been betrayed in the NSA revelations brought forth by Edward Snowden. Would more people boycott companies that violate their privacy if they could afford the alternatives that cost more than zero dollars?
“Need makes us vulnerable to those who wish to take advantage of it.”
Think of the trust we place in government to represent our common interest, despite the growing awareness it doesn’t. What recourse do citizens have but to trust and hope for the best when they are so busy working to just barely scrape by? When only 30 percent of those earning less than $15,000 are likely to vote versus the 80 percent likely to vote earning more than six figures, just how much time do the poorest really have to actually exercise their rights of citizenship?
This is all a compulsion to trust. The person with limited options is the one far more likely to ignore the voice in all of our heads that tells us something is too good to be true. Need makes us vulnerable to those who wish to take advantage of it. Need leaves us open for betrayal. The best way to combat this is to strike at the very foundation of it, and reduce need itself.
Finally, and possibly most destructively of all, there exists the compulsion for something so precious, it perpetually remains our Achilles Heel — our desire to focus on something so precious and so powerful, we become blinded to everything else.
Hope is everything. Hope drives us in ways so incredible we can actually accomplish the impossible. It also drives us in ways that destroy. It is hope that lies at the heart of our most extreme risk-taking, where we can be told the odds of victory are 1 percent, and we will consider those odds entirely acceptable.
The odds of winning a Mega Millions lottery jackpot is about 1 in 259 million. Because states use their collective $27.9 billion on lottery ticket salesin place of taxes, this kind of revenue functions as an implicit additional tax at a rate of 26 percent to 56 percent varying by state. In other words, if all you have is $10 in the state of Louisiana and you spend it on lottery tickets, you effectively just gave $5.60 to the Department of Revenue.
Meanwhile, even though all income quintiles spend about the same amount each year on lottery tickets, every ticket purchased by those with little money represents a much larger share of their total available income. A recent estimate places this percentage of income spent on lottery tickets by those earning $13,000 or less at around 2 percent to 3 percent, while those earning more than $70,000 (in 1991 dollars) are spending less than 0.18 percent.
What makes someone with $10 to their name spend $1 on a lottery ticket at the same rate as someone with a six figure savings account? The answer is those with the means can afford to gamble. Those without can’t. But those without are still spending their money in hopes it can change their lives, even though all it does is make their lives worse. Why?
They do it for the same reason they take out loans at interest rates above 1000 percent.
They do it for the same reason hundreds of migrants died on a capsized boat.
They do it for the same reason 20.9 million people worldwide are estimated by the ILO to be “trapped in jobs into which they were coerced or deceived and which they cannot leave.”
They do it because for them, money is scarce, the potential for money exists elsewhere, and because jobs — of any kind whatsoever — represent the only means of life.
If anyone claims we don’t know how to solve all of this, they’re either lying or ignorant of what’s already been proven to work.
“As long as people remain walled off from access to the resources they need to live, through the withholding of cash on the condition of working for others, the powerless will continue to be exploited.”
In a 2014 global review of empirical evidence on the impact on child labor of cash transfers with and without conditions, the World Bank found “broad evidence that conditional and unconditional cash transfers both lower children’s participation in child labor and hours worked, and cushion the effect of economic shocks that may lead households to use child labor as a coping strategy.”
Such findings are important to know because child labor is greatly connected to human trafficking. Parents in need of extra family income will put their children to work, and this can open them up to (or even directly result in) forced labor or sexual exploitation, of which 6 million kids are currently trapped.
There also exists data from actual basic income experiments, where money is given to entire areas instead of targeted only at the poor. In one such experiment in India, findings included strong “capability” effects where the socio-economic statuses of women, the elderly, and the disabled all improved. Additionally there were strong “equity” effects where the largest improvements were seen among lower castes and those considered more vulnerable such as the disabled and frail. There were also “emancipatory” effects where those in debt paid their way out of bondage by paying down high interest loans. Additionally, people were enabled to avoid taking on new debts and even build savings. The money helped everyone, but had greater effects on the traditionally marginalized.
When people in Namibia were given basic incomes in their pilot experiment, self-employment there increased by 301%. It was the main source of income growth. Income from self-employment actually reached the level of income from wages. People with little to no incomes, when given money, put themselves to work. Crime rates were reduced by over 40%. Illegal hunting — something that can be considered a crime born of utter desperation and the need to eat — was reduced 95%. This is what reduced need looks like.
It is well known and well-studied that just giving people money reduces their need to make hard choices. When your body is all you have, it’s all you can sell. When you have at least some money unconditionally, it functions as starting capital to open up a whole range of new choices. This is why basic income experiments show increased entrepreneurship. GiveDirectly — a charity built entirely around unconditional cash transfers and also embarking on a 12-year universal basic income experiment in East Africa — refers to this phenomenon in stating, “There’s no charity for power saws.”
Naturally, someone who wants to start a business chopping trees needs a saw, but if they have no money they can’t obtain one. Meanwhile it’s difficult to get a loan for one or ask a charity for one. It’s cash that people need so as to afford the work they wish to pursue, and in these pursuits, they are very creative. Without the necessary cash, they must pursue the work they might not wish to pursue, and that might leave them worse off.
As long as people remain walled off from access to the resources they need to live, through the withholding of cash on the condition of working for others, the powerless will continue to be exploited. Slavery will continue. Human trafficking will continue. Violence and crime will continue.
This is why Sex Worker Open University has actively called for a universal basic income. It’s also why there are now calls for the anti-slavery movement to do the same.
This is why a Rape and Women’s shelter in Vancouver actively supports universal basic income. It’s also why the Women’s Campaign of the UK’s National Union of Students has resolved to “widely publicize the societal need for a Universal Basic Income” as “an extremely important feminist issue.”
This is all why Ashley Engel stated in her presentation about fighting human trafficking with basic income, “only when a person is not monetarily vulnerable enough to be trafficked can trafficking be reduced. A UBI offers an effective mechanism to prevent such a horrific trade and is key to ensuring freedom for all.”
Freedom for all… this is an idea so far only spoken about in rhetoric and hypotheticals. There will never be true freedom from exploitation and all forms of slavery until freedom is actually granted unconditionally to all, with unconditional basic income.
Until that day comes, the decisions we make will remain compulsory instead of free.
You can help Scott Santens create support for unconditional basic income via his Patreon page.