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On the Record: Bernie Sanders on Basic Income

Scott Santens
Scott Santens
10 min read
On the Record: Bernie Sanders on Basic Income

There’s an increasing number of people asking Bernie Sanders if he supports the idea of universal basic income. You may be surprised to learn that he has in fact directly responded to these questions on multiple occasions, once even to a question posed to him myself.

This first exchange took place during his Reddit AMA on December 16, 2013:

Scott Santens: First of all, thank you for taking the time to do this IAMA, Senator Sanders.

Back in May of this year, you asked the question of us, “What Can We Learn From Denmark?”, and in that piece you mentioned their basic income guarantee. I’m sure you are also familiar, (though many reading this might not be), that we did actually pass a basic income guarantee of our own that passed the House but died in the Senate in 1970, back when we as a country thought poverty was systemic and not the fault of individuals.

Now in 2013, especially within the past few months since Switzerland made headlines with their gathering the necessary signatures required to vote on the implementation there of their own monthly income for all Swiss citizens regardless of employment, there have been a flurry of articles, from both the right and the left, discussing the implementation of a truly unconditional basic income (UBI) here in the U.S. as well.

With that said, this is my question for you:

Would you support a bill for the establishment of our own unconditional basic income, and if so, have you even already considered sponsoring such a bill?

It does seem to be one of those rare ideas drawing support from both conservatives and liberals alike, and being that we stand to lose half of our jobs to automation within 20 years, it seems like an inevitable choice between technological unemployment causing great suffering or great liberation.

Thank you for your time, and I would be happy to do whatever you recommend as a means of helping to accomplish such legislation.

For those interested, there’s an entire subreddit to discuss this idea in greater depth. /r/BasicIncome

His response:

Bernie Sanders: “There is no question that when we have today more people living in poverty than at any time in American history and when millions of families are struggling day by day just to keep their heads above water, we need to move aggressively to protect the dignity and well being of the least among us. Tragically, with cuts in food stamps, unemployment compensation and other important benefits, we are moving in exactly the wrong direction. There are a number of ways by which we can make sure that every man, woman and child in our country has at least a minimum standard of living and that is certainly something that must be explored.”

This next exchange took place during his next Reddit AMA on May 7, 2014, when Sanders was asked again about basic income, this time by /u/LoveAllHarmNone:

Q: What do you think of a Basic Income Guarantee if/when unemployment rises due to automation?

Bernie Sanders: I think that as a nation we should be deeply troubled by the fact that we have more people living in poverty today than ever before and that millions of seniors are finding it difficult to survive on about $1,200 a month from Social Security. I think we need to take a very hard look at why real income has gone down for millions of Americans despite a huge increase in productivity. In my view, every American is entitled to at least a minimum standard of living. There are different ways to get to that goal, but that’s the goal that we should strive to reach.

A year later, during another Reddit AMA on May 19, 2015, Sanders was once again asked about universal basic income, this time by /u/Stack0verf10w.

Q: Hello Senator Sanders, what is your stance on Universal Basic Income(UBI)? If in favor how do you see the United States progressing towards realizing UBI? If against, what alternatives come to your mind for combating rising inequality and poverty in the United States?

Bernie Sanders: So long as you have Republicans in control of the House and the Senate, and so long as you have a Congress dominated by big money, I can guarantee you that the discussion about universal basic income is going to go nowhere in a hurry. But, if we can develop a strong grassroots movement which says that every man, woman and child in this country is entitled to a minimum standard of living — is entitled to health care, is entitled to education, is entitled to housing — then we can succeed. We are living in the richest country in the history of the world, yet we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country and millions of people are struggling to put food on the table. It is my absolute conviction that everyone in this country deserves a minimum standard of living and we’ve got to go forward in the fight to make that happen.

In perhaps the most visible of all occurrences, Ezra Klein during his Vox Conversation with Bernie Sanders, chose to ask the basic income question as his final question.

Ezra Klein: Let me end on a question about a policy that is getting, seems to be, some momentum but it’s not often talked about in Washington, which is a universal basic income. You’ve begun to have people go back to both Milton Friedman and Martin Luther King Jr., saying we should really have a fundamentally guaranteed standard of living in this country.

Bernie Sanders: I am absolutely sympathetic to that approach. That’s why I’m fighting for a $15 minimum wage, why I’m fighting to make sure that everybody in this country gets the nutrition they need, why I’m fighting to expand Social Security benefits and not cut them, making sure that every kid in this country regardless of income can go to college. That’s what a civilized nation does.

Here’s the point. This is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, but nobody in America knows it because their standard of living is going down and almost all of the new wealth is going to the top 1 percent. That is an issue that we have to deal with.

In the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, the top one-tenth of 1 percent should not own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Everybody in this country should in fact have at least a minimum and dignified standard of living. All right?

Sanders’ interview with Vox is also not the only time he has been asked the BIG question on video. On October 10, 2014, this occurrence was recorded at the University of New Hampshire:

Question: Do you support a Universal Basic Income for all US residents and why?

Bernie Sanders: I think the goal to deal with this, as I’ve been saying tonight, is to make sure that we eliminate poverty in America. If we have wages for people — living wages that sustain a family, there are various ways to do it. So I mean — different ways to reach that goal. But if the goal is that in America everybody should have at least a modest standard of living — with health care, with educational opportunity, the answer is absolutely yes.

UPDATE: May 31, 2017: Berlin, Germany

Question: You support minimum wage for all Americans, do you also support a UBI, Universal Basic Income?

Bernie Sanders: I do, but that is not where we are. I think that is a very correct idea. In other words, what that essentially says is that no family — I think Finland is beginning to move in that direction, right? I absolutely support that, but right now where we are, I mean that’s kind of a step too far right now for the United States.

UPDATE: A Town Hall in Michigan, 2017

Question(paraphrased): I’m working on technologies for autonomous vehicles. What can be done so that these new technologies don’t hurt so many people?

Bernie Sanders: Nobody knows what the impacts of robots and automation will be, but it’s clear we’re seeing it already. There used to be in Detroit and all over this country where you had automobile manufacturing, they’re now producing more cars with fewer workers and that trend will only continue. In terms of transportation, we have millions of people today who make their living by driving a truck or taxi or using a car. The day will come when we have driverless trucks and cars. What does that do to the millions of people earning their living now? I think the fundamental issue that has to be dealt with is that technology is not a bad thing in itself. But technology cannot simply be used by the owners of the technology, it’s got to be used to benefit all of our people. So if we replace a dangerous job with a machine, that’s a good thing. That doesn’t mean you simply displace the worker and throw him or her out on the street, and that raises the question of basic income for everybody and so forth. It is an issue that has not gotten the attention it deserves, but it’s hovering in front of us and we have to deal with it.

UPDATE: April 7, 2019 (Malcolm, Iowa)

Audience member: “I know you’ve expressed support for universal basic income in the past in your interviews, but there’s this guy Andrew Yang who wants to give everybody a thousand bucks a month with a VAT tax, and I think to win the Democratic primary, you’ve gotta do that.”

Bernie Sanders: Nah. I’ve got a better idea.

Audience member: You won’t do it?

Bernie Sanders: Nope. Sorry you came all the way from Alabama. Here’s a better idea. I understand that idea. I have a better idea, and the better idea I think is that in a nation in which there is so much work to be done, just think about it. You’ve got an infrastructure which is crumbling. We can put millions of people to work doing that. Transforming our energy system in terms of weatherizing homes all over this country, building a more efficient transportation system. Putting more money into wind and solar and other sustainable technologies. We can create millions of jobs doing that. Think about daycare. You want a world class child care center? You need well-educated, well-trained, well-paid child care workers. We need many of them. We need more doctors in rural areas and in urban areas. We need more nurses. We have a dental crisis all over this country. We need to train dentists and get them out there. We need more social workers. You want to reform our criminal justice system? You’re going to need people to start working with prisoners. You want kids not dropping out of high school? You’re going to need mentors working with them.

There is an enormous amount of work to be done and what we believe in is guaranteeing a job in this country to anybody who is prepared to work. I think that’s the better approach.

Update: August 27, 2019 (Interview with The Hill’s Krystal Ball)

Krystal Ball: Why is a Federal Jobs Guarantee better than a Universal Basic Income?

Bernie Sanders: I will tell you why. A simple reason. I think most people want to work. They want to be a productive member of society. I think that’s a deeply ingrained feeling people have. They don’t want to sit on the side. Yes of course, getting a guaranteed income is better than having nothing and sleeping out on the street. That’s for sure. But I think people want to be part of our humanity, to be truthful, and how we feel good about ourselves is when we are productive members of our society. We’re contributing something. And I think people feel that very strongly. I think there is more than enough work to be done in so many areas, and our job is to say, “If you’re able to work, we have a job for you.” Because the truth is we have so much work to do to rebuild this country in so many ways.

Concluding Remarks

The above responses by Bernie Sanders to being asked about the idea of universal basic income are all those of which I know, though undoubtedly there are more. If you know of one you’d like to see added here, please let me know so I can add it.

Also, I think it would be a good strategy to continue asking Bernie Sanders about basic income as frequently as possible. The more he is asked, the more support for the idea he will see, and undoubtedly the more credence he will lend to the idea having more political potential than he may currently think.

Being that he appears to now think a job guarantee is a superior alternative to a basic income guarantee, I believe everyone should now begin asking him why he believes universal basic income should not exist underneath a job guarantee so as to prevent guaranteed jobs from devolving into workfare, aka welfare with a work requirement, aka the return of Victorian Workhouses. JG and UBI are of course not mutually exclusive. So why not support both?

In other words, the question to ask now is why does Bernie Sanders believe that money to live free of poverty should be withheld from people on the condition they work to obtain it?

Special thanks to Steven Grimm, Arjun Banker, Larry Cohen, Aaron Marcus-Kubitza, Andrew Stern, Topher Hunt, Keith Davis, Chris Smothers, Richard Just, Albert Wenger, Mark Witham, Kian Alavi, Cameron Ottens, Susanne Berg, Gerald Huff, Michiel Dral, Louise Whitmore, Dan O’Sullivan, Harish Venkatesan, John David Hodge, Gary Aranovich, Kai Wong, Michael Honey, Katie Doemland, Stuart Matthews, Natalie Foster, Chris McCoy, David Ihnen, Joe Ballou, Jack Wagner, Joe Esposito, Jan Smole, Danielle Texeira, Paul Wicks, Masud Shah, Elizabeth Balcar, Jeff Schulman, Olli Niinimäki, Casey Young, Thomas Welsh, Amy Shaffer, Kris Roadruck, Lee Irving, Rise & Shine PAC, Kirk Israel, Luke Sampson, Robert Solovay, Dave Shelton, Bryan Herdliska, Stephane Boisvert, Andrew Henderson, Erhan Altay, Johan Grahn, Tony DeStefano, Shane Gordon, Paolo Narciso, Martin Jordo, Victor Lau, Robert F. Greene, all my other funders for their support, and my amazing partner, Katie Smith.

Would you like to see your name here too?

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Scott Santens Twitter

Unconditional/Universal Basic Income (UBI) advocate with a crowdfunded basic income; Founder and President of ITSA Foundation, Author of Let There Be Money; Editor of

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