AI Is Threatening Americans’ Jobs. Could Guaranteed Income Provide A Safety Net?

The once-scoffed at idea of guaranteed income is receiving renewed interest as AI becomes an increasing threat to Americans’ jobs. (zamrznutitonovi/iStockphoto/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

By Catherine Thorbecke, CNN

(CNN) — Michael Tubbs was born and raised in Stockton, California, roughly a one-hour drive from Silicon Valley, the birthplace of the AI revolution that’s now forecast to forever change the way Americans live and work.

But despite coming of age in Big Tech’s backyard, the America that Tubbs grew up in was marked by “scarcity and poverty,” he told CNN. Tubbs, 33, was born to a teenage mother, whom he says he never saw when he was younger because “she was always working — and it was never enough.”

His own experiences led him to think about different ways that the wealthiest country in the world could help ameliorate poverty. When Tubbs went on to become the first Black mayor of his hometown in 2016, he spearheaded a guaranteed income pilot program in 2019 that did something simple yet radical: Give out free money with no strings attached. 

That idea of guaranteed income is receiving renewed interest as AI becomes an increasing threat to Americans’ livelihoods.

Global policymakers and business leaders are now increasingly warning that the rise of artificial intelligence will likely have profound impacts on the labor market and could put millions of people out of work in the years ahead (while also creating new and different jobs in the process). The International Monetary Fund warned earlier this year that some 40% of jobs around the world could be affected by the rise of AI, and that this trend will likely deepen the already cavernous gulf between the haves and have-nots.

As more Americans’ jobs are increasingly at risk due to the threat of AI, Tubbs and other proponents of guaranteed income say this could be one solution to help provide a safety net and cushion the expected blow AI will have on the labor market.

“We don’t really do a good job at designing policies or doing things in times of crisis,” Tubbs told CNN, saying it is urgent to start planning for guaranteed income programs before we see 40% of global jobs taken by AI.

For a period of two years starting in 2019, Stockton handed out to 125 randomly selected residents in low-income neighborhoods $500 a month with no conditions around how they used the funds or if they had employment. The initial results from the pilot program found that recipients had drastically improved their job prospects and financial stability and saw better physical and mental health outcomes.

“Let’s get the guardrails in place now,” he said. “Then, when we have to deal with that job displacement, we’re better positioned to do so.”

Silicon Valley’s infatuation with guaranteed income

The idea of a guaranteed income is not new. Tubbs said he was inspired to pursue it after reading the works of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who advocated for guaranteed income in his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”

“I’m now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income,” King wrote at the time.

Decades after King’s death, the idea of guaranteed income went on to see a resurgence of support emanating out of Silicon Valley. The concept emerged as a buzzword of sorts among many of Silicon Valley’s elite — including Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Sam Altman — even before the public launch of ChatGPT in late 2022 re-upped a global debate about automation disrupting jobs.

“Universal income will be necessary over time if AI takes over most human jobs,” Tesla CEO Musk tweeted back in 2018. Late last year, in an interview with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Musk said he thought AI would eventually bring about “universal high income,” without sharing any details of what this could look like.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, called for the exploration of “ideas like universal basic income to make sure that everyone has a cushion to try new ideas,” during a Harvard commencement speech in May 2017. In a Facebook post later that year, Zuckerberg celebrated Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend — or the annual grants given to Alaska residents from a portion of the state’s oil revenue — as a “novel approach to basic income” that “comes from conservative principles of smaller government, rather than progressive principles of a larger safety net.”

Altman, CEO of one of the world’s most powerful AI companies, OpenAI, has also been outspoken about what he sees as the need for some form of guaranteed income as many jobs are increasingly lost to automation.

Back in 2016, when Altman was president of tech startup accelerator YCombinator, he announced he was seeking participants to help launch a study on basic income (or, as he described it at the time, “giving people enough money to live on with no strings attached.”)

“I’m fairly confident that at some point in the future, as technology continues to eliminate traditional jobs and massive new wealth gets created, we’re going to see some version of this at a national scale,” Altman wrote in a 2016 blog post for YCombinator.

He has since left his post at YCombinator to focus on OpenAI, but Altman still chairs the board of OpenResearch, the nonprofit lab that is in the process of conducting this ongoing study on basic income that he helped launch.

Elizabeth Rhodes, research director at OpenResearch, told CNN earlier this year that it hopes to release initial findings this summer from a three-year study on unconditional income involving some 3,000 individuals in two states.

“We really see this as sort of a foundational exploratory study to understand what happens when you give individuals unconditional cash,” she told CNN.

While she stressed that she could not get into the specifics of her team’s research while the study is underway, she hopes that their findings can eventually provide some data that answers some of the most common questions surrounding how cash payments will impact people’s desire to work and its broader potential advantages or disadvantages within communities.

Other tech industry tycoons, including Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, have also thrown immense financial support behind guaranteed income programs. (In 2020, Dorsey donated some $18 million to Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, the organization that Tubbs founded).

Dozens of cities across the United States have already begun experimenting with guaranteed income programs in recent years, with most of them funded by nonprofit organizations but organized by local officials.

Tubbs said he ultimately thinks funding for these programs should come from the federal government but encouraged lawmakers to be creative about finding ways to raise revenue.

“For example, you could legalize cannabis federally and use that tax revenue, you could do a data dividend or some sort of robot tax or AI tax,” he suggested.

Opponents to guaranteed income programs, most of whom lean Republican, have argued that such efforts disincentivize work or that taxing successful tech companies can stifle innovation.

And in Texas, opponents of guaranteed income are taking their battle to court. Earlier this week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Harris County over its guaranteed income program that is funded using federal money from the pandemic-era American Rescue Plan. “This scheme is plainly unconstitutional,” Paxton said in a statement. “I am suing to stop officials in Harris County from abusing public funds for political gain.”

In court documents, the attorney general goes on to slam the program as “illegal and illegitimate government overreach.”

‘It’s not just giving people money, it’s giving them opportunity’

Tomas Vargas Jr., a recipient of guaranteed income in the Stockton pilot program, told CNN that he heard critics saying that receiving the extra payments would make people “lazy.” But he says it ultimately gave him the opportunity to find better work.

“When I got the money, I was already in the mindset of hustling and getting money. So, it just made me want to get more money,” he said. “The thing that I want people to understand about the guaranteed income is it’s not just giving people money, it’s giving them opportunity.”

For years, Vargas said he woke up every day with the crippling anxiety that comes with never quite knowing how he will be able to provide for his family. He was juggling multiple jobs: working at UPS, repairing cars, mowing lawns, delivering groceries and picking up any other work he could find. He said he almost never saw his children and said he briefly received food stamp assistance but was “instantly kicked off” when he would pick up extra hours of work.

“There’s one thing that I’ve always wanted as a father, and that’s not to make my kids go through the same things that I went through: having no power, no water, or no food on the plates,” he told CNN. “So I was always trying to grind.”

Vargas said the extra cash payments he received helped him focus and apply for one full-time job, which he never had the time or energy to do before. He now says he thinks guaranteed income could be one way to provide a cushion for re-training or education programs for people whose jobs are exposed to AI, the same way it helped him pivot to better and more secure employment.

Vargas, like Tubbs, was born and raised in Stockton. Vargas said his father was never around much growing up and he eventually moved in with his grandmother when he was 12. Before participating in the program, Vargas said he was “a really negative person” and that he didn’t look at himself as someone even worth investing in.

But the extra financial security allowed him to spend more time with his children, and ultimately break the cycle of poverty he had seen in his community his whole life.

“One of the biggest things that helped me realize my full potential that I had in myself, and I was worth investing in, was seeing the reaction from my kids,” Vargas said, “and seeing the generational trauma and healing in them.”

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