Economic Justice and Universal Basic Income: Ethical and Religious Perspectives

September 1, 2020

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Statue of Lady Justice holding scales

Interest in universal basic income (UBI) is surging in American popular and political discourse, as the United States continues to experience the social and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In general, UBI refers to periodic cash payments made to all, although the policy differs in theory and practice depending on national and political context. The policy, once considered as utopian in mainstream policy circles, is now the talk of high-profile politicians like Andrew Yang, who built his 2020 presidential campaign on UBI. Faith leaders are also part of the conversation to re-envision the role of government in providing for the common good. Take, for example, Pope Francis, who called for a salario universal (universal basic wage) at Easter. With ongoing debate in Congress on further government support following the March 2020 CARES Act, faith leaders and religious ethics can make important contributions to the ongoing conversation.

Historically, faith leaders and religious institutions have played key roles in on-the-ground activism on economic issues, contributing to broader debates on increasing inequality in the global economy. Not unrelated to the efforts of religious activists are the ethical principles informing advocacy in the field. Debates on UBI, for example, often intersect with a number of ethical issues, including the meaning and purpose of work; social justice and economic inequality; and the role of government, as exemplified by the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic social thought. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate inequality worldwide, examining religious and ethical perspectives on policies like UBI can provide critical direction on efforts to rebuild global society. 

This week the Berkley Forum asks: How might the normative teachings of various faith traditions contribute to debates on UBI and government welfare, more broadly? What are some of the ethical challenges and possibilities of a policy like UBI? How might religiously grounded understandings of the common good contribute to conversations on fiscal policy? What are some key ethical and religious principles policymakers should have in mind when addressing economic inequality in the wake of COVID-19? What role does religious activism play in broader debates on economic justice and universal basic income? 

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