1. Home
  2. policy
  3. economy
  4. news
  5. Conservatives are fighting guaranteed basic income programs using a surprising argument: They aren't universal

Conservatives are fighting guaranteed basic income programs using a surprising argument: They aren't universal

Kenneth Niemeyer,Katie Balevic,Peter Gelling   

Conservatives are fighting guaranteed basic income programs using a surprising argument: They aren't universal
  • Conservatives are fighting guaranteed basic income programs across the country.
  • Lawyers and lawmakers want to block basic income programs in Texas, California, and elsewhere.

Legal challenges by conservative lawmakers and activists against guaranteed basic income programs are heating up nationwide. And one of their arguments is surprising: Some say the programs are discriminatory because they are not universal.

Numerous cities and counties are experimenting with guaranteed basic incomes to support their most vulnerable populations. They typically offer no-strings-attached monthly payments between $500 and $1,000 to specific groups, like new moms, Black women, or trans people, all of them low-income residents.

Guaranteed basic income programs differ from their idealistic cousin — a universal basic income. UBI, made famous by Andrew Yang during the 2016 presidential election, would provide a monthly payment to all citizens. The theory is simple: A rising tide lifts all boats.

The idea has gained new traction after the success of federal pandemic-era financial support, which experts say prevented about 12 million people from falling into poverty. Some have also embraced the potential of a basic income as a remedy for the rise of AI, which could threaten job security for many Americans. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said his own study on basic income would be released soon.

While localized guaranteed basic income programs are tiny compared to a nationwide universal basic income, they are the subject of no less conservative opposition. Much of the opposition from lawmakers is due to fears of creeping "socialism." Local politicians in places like South Dakota and Arizona have moved to block basic income programs for this reason alone.

The South Dakota bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. John Wiik, said basic income programs redistribute hard-earned money and are a "socialist idea."

Legal challenges to the programs, meanwhile, led by some conservative officials and legal activist groups, are making a more specific argument that, perhaps unintentionally, makes a case for a universal basic income.

In San Francisco, the conservative legal activist organization Judicial Watch sued city officials in January to block a basic income program that gives a small group of trans people $1,000 a month. The lawsuit argues that the program, known as GIFT, violates the state constitution's equal protection clause because it gives "preferential treatment" to trans people when choosing candidates.

"Suffering doesn't know a race or a creed or a gender," Kathryn Blankenberg, an attorney at Judicial Watch, told Business Insider. "It's something universal. And saying one group suffers more than another based on how they identify, that's painting people with a very broad brush."

In November, the American Civil Rights Project, a conservative public-interest law firm, sued the city over several of its guaranteed basic income plans.

That lawsuit mainly targets The Abundant Birth Project, which gives pregnant Black women $1,000 monthly payments for a year. After showing positive results, the program received a $5 million grant from the state in December 2022.

The group's lawsuit similarly argues that several of the city's basic income programs are discriminatory because they "unlawfully" choose candidates based on "race, ethnicity, gender/gender identity, and sexual orientation."

"Most prominently, these government-sponsored and publicly funded programs are designed to select beneficiaries on a racially exclusionary basis. This is unconstitutional," the lawsuit says.

Meanwhile, in Texas, the state supreme court ordered an administrative stay against a Houston-area basic income project hours before it was set to begin — a reaction to a challenge by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who says it's "unconstitutional."

In court documents, Paxton argued that the Uplift Harris program — which gives low-income residents in the Harris County area up to $500 a month — is unconstitutional because the program chooses recipients based on a random lottery.

"Here, the selection of individuals to receive payments under (Uplift Harris) is plainly arbitrary," Paxton writes.

While these arguments appear to support giving basic income payments to a broader group of people, it's unlikely many conservatives would actually support a universal basic income.

Blankenberg from Judicial Watch said her main focus was the "suspect classification" of the guaranteed basic income projects but doesn't believe a universal basic income would work either, echoing some of the arguments made by state lawmakers in South Dakota and elsewhere.

"I don't think it'll ever work," she said. "At the end of the day, the taxpayer hurts. It's not the government's money. It's our money."