Wealth inequality in the US is the worst it’s ever been, and the Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator thinks giving people free money might be a way to solve the problem.
For five years, the accelerator plans to give a select group of Americans a regular paycheck, no strings attached. (If you want to lead this research, Y Combinator is hiring.)
Rather than forcing people to get by on their wages alone, the thinking goes, why not give them a regular allowance that can cover basic expenses like food and shelter?
The idea isn’t new — “basic income,” or “guaranteed income,” has been floating around since the 1960s, mostly in Europe. But Y Combinator’s approach is radical as far as the US is concerned.
“50 years from now, I think it will seem ridiculous that we used fear of not being able to eat as a way to motivate people,” Y Combinator’s president, Sam Altman, writes. “I also think that it’s impossible to truly have equality of opportunity without some version of guaranteed income.”
The accelerator hasn’t decided yet if it will offer basic income to specific populations in one region of the US or scatter its subjects all across the country. Altman says his team is “flexible on that and all aspects of the project.”
The experiment will look to shed light on key uncertainties about basic income: Are people lazier when they don’t have to work anymore? Will high earners resent the premise? Will people become any happier?
“I think that, combined with innovation driving down the cost of having a great life,” Altman writes, “by doing something like this we could eventually make real progress towards eliminating poverty.”
Over the last several months, the idea has seen a surge of interest in Europe. In June of 2015, the Dutch city of Utrecht ran an experiment that gave 250 welfare recipients a steady monthly income whether they worked or not. By August, the experiment had spread to two dozen other Dutch cities, and in December, Finland announced it will put its own plan to a vote in 2016.
America has also seen basic income before. Richard Nixon gave the system a try in the 1960s, but it never left the ground largely because people’s values shifted away from welfare models. Any sense of togetherness people felt in the 1950s seemed to quickly crumble once Vietnam hit. The country splintered, and the 1970s brought about economic uncertainty.
“[Guaranteed income] was a victim of a much larger paradigm shift that affected every sphere of society,” historian Michael Katz told Remapping Debate in 2013.
Many of those individualistic values have remained, says Almaz Zelleke, a basic income researcher at NYU Shanghai. This could pose problems for getting people on board with such a radical change. It involves “persuading the public that a basic income should be viewed as a basic democratic right, like the vote,” Zelleke tells Tech Insider.
But if Y Combinator’s experiment works, it could become the first large-scale evidence that a radical overhaul of wealth distribution is exactly what the US needs.
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