Supporting UBI: The Power of Religious Contributions

By: Thomas Massaro

September 1, 2020

Economic Justice and Universal Basic Income: Ethical and Religious Perspectives

“The Joy of the Gospel,” the apostolic letter Evangelii Gaudium of November 24, 2013, was the first major teaching document promulgated by Pope Francis. Although one of the longest documents in papal history, it is perhaps best remembered for two “sound bites” regarding economic justice (hardly the main topic of this document on the task of evangelization). The first and more dramatic one falls early in the document when Pope Francis laments the threat to human life presented by “an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills” (no. 53). The second comes much later within a section titled “The inclusion of the poor in society,” in a paragraph that begins with an acknowledgment of “The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty” and that concludes with the admonition: “Inequality is the root of social ills” (no. 202).

Now, papal appeals for greater social justice and sharing of life-enhancing resources are hardly new, although the distinctive rhetorical flourishes of the Jesuit pope from Argentina did initially shock some observers. The papal “bully pulpit” assured that millions around the world would at least hear the appeals of Francis for economic reforms that would accomplish two complementary items. First, the desired changes would provide greater material assistance for the poor through measures that fit the traditional pattern generally labeled “charity,” and which Francis refers to as “welfare projects.” Second, such reforms would restructure the economy so that a range of exclusions and barriers to opportunity may be more readily overcome through the advocacy and empowerment efforts that proceed under the rubric of a “social justice orientation.”

At the core of the message of Pope Francis is the importance of addressing massive and growing inequality, which threatens the dignity and the very lives of billions. While measuring the power of the papal bully pulpit is perennially difficult, it is worth noting that within a month of the release of “The Joy of the Gospel,” President Barack Obama was making a regular practice of describing economic inequality as “the defining issue of our age.” And of course, the teachings of Francis in our age of increasingly concentrated wealth were joined not only with similar moral appeals from numerous religious leaders around the world, but also with warnings from economists and social scientists (most notably, Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz) who have for decades been documenting the growing wealth and income gap and warning of dire consequences unless policy reforms are enacted.

Among the most appealing policy measures to address economic inequality is the notion of a universal basic income, or UBI. Proposals for such initiatives—phrased in various ways in American political discourse, including a previous incarnation as “guaranteed annual income”—predated Pope Francis, of course. It is safe to say that policy debates around UBI have operated on a trajectory that shares few points of substantive contact with the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, although the Easter 2020 mention by Francis of the wisdom of a universal basic wage (salario universal) might suggest a certain level of cross-fertilization in recent policy discourse between Rome and Washington. The bold advocacy of UBI by Andrew Yang in his campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination accomplished much to raise the profile of such proposals.

As I see it, the still vibrant “Yang Gang” addressed exactly half of the vitally important inquiry into the significance of universal guaranteed income. In advocating for UBI, Yang and his followers elaborated rather well on that part of the proposal that any political platform will naturally consider: the question of how a universal income would operate. The remaining half, which is rightly considered a question to be addressed preeminently by religious traditions and communities of faith, concerns why a guaranteed universal income deserves our consideration.

I readily concede that it is, in a limited sense, quite possible to answer such why questions (regarding the rationale behind any number of redistributive measures, for example) in terms of social indicators, public health benefits, or other quantifiable outcomes—all of which suggest that a strong case indeed can be established for UBI. But I would also insist upon recognizing an even deeper level of warrants undergirding any arguments supporting the systematic sharing of resources: a level of justification that involves such profound questions as the ultimate purpose of the economy—indeed the very significance of the material universe and its resources. This is where religious conviction is indispensable to comprehending the case for UBI.

While humanitarian goodwill may play a prominent and constructive role in supporting social assistance such as UBI, it is religious conviction that is capable of supplying the most durable motivation for universal social concern. Why should any affluent person care about the life prospects of the less fortunate, or lift a finger of charity to assist them, or even support public policy initiatives to redistribute resources down the income pyramid? Religion is uniquely powerful in providing cosmology and narrative—a view of the universe and its purposes, which forms the character and fundamental moral orientations of people. If there is indeed divine purpose in the creation of a hospitable world with resources adequate to sustain all people, then there is an obligation to ensure that the common gifts of the earth support the flourishing of all.

Compassion for those unable to supply their own sustenance has throughout history spurred faith-based social action through private charitable institutions associated with all the world’s religions. UBI is of course a public measure, but support for generous social provision is generated by well-established patterns of religious ideation, such as regard for the common good, the recognition of universal human solidarity, and a preferential option for the poor. In short, religion generates both powerful emotions of fellow-feeling and ideas capable of creating consensus on social policies like UBI, even in thoroughly pluralistic contexts.

In the absence of religious conviction of this sort, it is difficult to imagine finding a basis for the affluent to transcend narrow self-interest, to embrace financial sacrifice, and to renounce any of their prerogatives—preconditions for any UBI arrangements that involve progressive taxation as a principle of public finance. Without religion’s contribution to policy debates, massive poverty and inequality remain merely conditions to be endured (perhaps with a shrug signaling resignation at inevitable facts of life), not truly problems impelling us to social action against intolerable injustices that can indeed be reversed. 

Amidst the current pandemic, UBI is emerging as a promising measure capable of alleviating great suffering. If such proposals are to gain traction, they will have to tap the power of the human imagination and engage the normative teachings of Catholic social thought and many other faith traditions. Pope Francis has already led the way in striking a note of urgency. In challenging times like the present moment, religions have long been a vital springboard to social activism, issuing stern reminders that we indeed are “our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper.”

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