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US: Chris Hughes, co-chair of the Economic Security Project (ESP), favours means tested guaranteed income for working poor over UBI in new book

In a July 2017 televised Town Hall with KCET, Economic Security Project co-chairs Chris Hughes and Natalie Foster were asked about the principles of a Universal Basic Income. Public questions from Facebook were delivered by the moderator, the first common concern of which was: should we “give everybody a Basic Income,” even the lazy and wealthy?

Foster took the question and responded with a “yes,” commenting that a universal policy “had more political resiliency” (programs with universal access would attract more support), and that shifting economic situations for the American middle class suggested that support for everyone was logical. She clarified that a Basic Income, whatever the size, is intended to be delivered to everyone with “no strings attached.”

Hughes followed up during a second question on the affordability of Basic Income. He commented that a program could be made more affordable by starting small and scaling up, by, for example, beginning with small monthly payments of $200 to American adults (not quite universal, but not means tested), between the ages of 18 and 64, placing the brunt of the tax burden for this measure on wealthy Americans or in a carbon tax. Hughes also compared Basic Income’s feasibility to existing social security programs.

More recently, Hughes’ new book, Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn (February 2018), will propose a guaranteed income of $500 per month for working adults whose households earn less than $50,000 annually, with the same provided for students and unpaid caregivers.

Hughes’ book is promoted by but independent of the Economic Security Project, “a network committed to advancing the debate on unconditional cash and basic income in the United States.” Their purview includes, but is not limited to, a Universal Basic Income (UBI), as defined by BIEN: “a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.”

Chris Hughes. Credit to: SpeakerHub

Chris Hughes. Credit to: SpeakerHub

The version of guaranteed income that Hughes promotes is very different from that espoused by others at ESP, such as senior fellow Andy Stern, whose 2016 book Raising The Floor makes a case for UBI, because a test based on household income and employment is not the same as giving every individual an unconditional Basic Income. Ongoing coverage of guaranteed income experiments has shown that many governments and organizations follow the same trend as Hughes, pursuing studies that offer cash payments that are means-tested, based on employment status, or revoked when income or employment status exceed minimum limits. Several Dutch experiments encountered obstacles to implementing a UBI pilot not just in public opinion but also in federal compliance issues. UBI proponents may face pressure to give money only to the worthy, and to define that worthiness socioeconomically.

The idea that a guaranteed income is best directed at the poor (and more specifically the working poor) is reiterated in Hughes’ press release email for Fair Shot:

As I write in the book, I’m the first to recognize how lucky I got early in life, but I’ve come to believe this luck doesn’t come from nowhere. We’ve created an economy that creates a small set of fortunate one percenters while making it harder and harder for poor and middle-class people to make ends meet. But we also have a proven tool to beat back against economic injustice—recurring cash payments, directly to the people who need them most. A guaranteed income for working people would provide financial security to all Americans and lift 20 million people out of poverty overnight. It would cost less than half of what we spend on defense a year.

The question raised by the KCET Facebook commentators about ESP’s proposal to give money to “everyone” reflects the same ongoing public concerns that some have about welfare and social programs. It asks for beneficiaries to prove that they are worthy in order to receive public money, and it raises the suspicion that recipients will be lazy or will not attempt to re-enter the workforce. Hughes’ new message in Fair Shot attempts to counteract this by arguing that the beneficiaries are worthy: they are employed, hard working, and “need it most.” He thus reassures the reader that the recipients are deserving.

In contrast, the answer given by Foster in the July 2017 town hall promoted a “no strings attached” UBI. The Economic Security project and associated individuals encourage research and debate around Basic Income and guaranteed incomes; the parameters of upcoming affiliated projects like the Stockton Demonstration (yet to be fully released at this time) suggest an interest both in UBI and in guaranteed income systems.


More information at:

KCET Facebook feed, ‘Town Hall Los Angeles: Q&A with Chris Hughes and Natalie Foster’, KCET Broadcast and Media Production Company, 26th July 2017

Chris Hughes , ‘Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn’, (‘Amazon Review: Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn’,

Kirkus Review’,, 24th December 2017

Kate McFarland, ‘NEW BOOK: Raising the Floor by Andy Stern’, Basic Income News, 11th June 2016

Andy Stern, ‘Moving towards a universal basic income’, The World Jobs and Development Blog, 4th December 2016

Kate McFarland, ‘Overview of Current Basic Income Related Experiments (October 2017)’, Basic Income News, 19th October 2017









About Faun Rice

Faun Rice has written 10 articles.

Faun is a Canadian social researcher. She writes for Basic Income News as a way to learn more about UBI and related social policy as new research is conducted around the world.

The views expressed in this Op-Ed piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of Basic Income News or BIEN. BIEN and Basic Income News do not endorse any particular policy, but Basic Income News welcomes discussion from all points of view in its Op-Ed section.


  • CJMorgan

    Giving people money without teaching them how to effectively manage their money and expenses will not “lift people out of poverty overnight.” It will only serve to put them deeper into poverty, just like the people who win the lottery and later spend all of it, returning to their monetary set point.

    How about using that money to pay for people’s health care coverage, so they don’t have to pay even a penny for it? That would be true universal health care.

    • Børge

      Why are you assuming that the people in question need to be tought how to manage their money?

    • Tom Clarkson

      If a universal income payment of, say, $4,500/year , was given to everyone in the US it would be spent as well, on average, as people spend their money now. The assertion that a universal income payment would drive more people deeper into poverty than it would lift from poverty is not credible.

      Such a universal income payment, if given with no reduction in public health care funding, would improve overall health outcomes by improving living conditions and increasing private spending on health care.

      Read and sign “People’s Dividend” petition on


  • Nedland P Williams

    A Basic Income should not be viewed in isolation, it should be combined with the tax code. In the US, federal taxes could be collected by employers as a flat tax. This would dramatically simplify collection. It also means that most employees would no longer have to file annual tax forms. A UBI would be distributed to individuals by the government monthly. Since all adult citizens would receive the same amount, distribution would be highly efficient.

    For those with no income, the UBI would replace current safety-net programs dollar for dollar. For those with income, the UBI would replace the standard deduction and all tax deductions.

    The net effect would be that all face the same marginal tax rate (the flat rate). However, when the UBI is added in, the effective tax rate goes from negative toward the flat rate in a smooth curve, that is more progressive than the current tax code.

    The UBI cost would be about $2.3 trillion. That would be paid by $0.9 trillion (out of current $2.0 safety-net payments) plus $1.4 trillion is so called “tax expenditures” (tax deductions, which primarily benefit the top 30%).

    While there would be no net cost increase, close to 1 million bureaucrats would become redundant, dramatically reducing interference in the average citizen’s life. Efficiency savings should boost national growth by 1 3/4% annually.

    A means-tested BI requires a bureaucracy and does not impact the tax code, so there are no such efficiency savings.

  • D.H. Fabian

    You can’t solve a math equation by simply leaving out the difficult parts, and that’s what this generation persists in doing when it comes to our economic deterioration. You can’t save the “working poor” when you merely discard them when they aren’t currently of use to employers. It’s blatantly hypocritical to claim some concern for the “working poor,” only to turn your backs when they are phased out of the job market. In real life, not everyone can work (health, etc.), and there aren’t jobs for all. Now think: The US began shutting down/shipping out jobs in the 1980s, ended actual welfare aid in the 1990s — lost over 5 million manufacturing jobs alone since 2000. This created am abundant surplus of job-ready people who are desperate for the chance to replace you, for even lower wages. Why pay more? Businesses are for-profit entities, not social service agencies.

  • “…a guaranteed income for *working* people…”

    As much as I appreciated their sharing some of their wealth with me, when I was with Basic Income News, this is just the sort of stance and rhetoric that makes me very glad no longer to be affiliated with ESP.

    I guess it all worked well for quite me in the end. Hopefully, though, the next movement or organization I end up joining will be one that has balls to commit to attacking the Protestant work ethic directly, assertively, and relentlessly. *shrugs*

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