How UBI went from niche idea to #NewNormal

1st April 2020


Over the past few years, Universal Basic Income (UBI) was a niche idea in policy circles: direct government payments to citizens seemed impossible in America. Until now, that is. 

The unprecedented impact of COVID-19 on the economy has altered the landscape out of all recognition, moving UBI from the fringes to the heart of policy debate, and the center of a growing online conversation.

Mentions of UBI reached 100k mentions on a single day in mid-March, totaling 345k over the month as world governments scrambled to put money into the hands of their citizens and so restart a global economy teetering on recession. 

That number had previously sat at around the 2k mark for much of September and October last year, increasing to an average of a little under 4k in January and February.


And it’s not just online.

Direct government payouts to (certain) citizens are already starting to happen across the world. Although neither universal nor regular, these include the $1,200 allocated to every citizen in the US bailout package, Canada’s flat benefit of $2,000 to those out of work and UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s pledge of an 80% furlough to both employees and self-employed workers.

Before exploding in popularity over the past few weeks, UBI had started gaining traction among the #yanggang, the social media army/community of Democratic candidate Andrew Yang. Yang (who focused on automation, not on pandemics) would give UBI the prime-time treatment at each of his appearances in the Democratic Party debates.  

But then something interesting happened. 

Throughout the past 6 months, spikes in the UBI conversation were invariably linked to (and smaller than) spikes in mentions of Yang himself.

But when the US congress began discussing stimulus packages that included direct payments to American citizens, the trend flipped: UBI mentions exploded to 181k in one week, igniting a bit of residual interest in Yang himself. The general public’s interest levels around the two appear to have entirely inverted.

The idea UBI, of course, had existed in some form long before 2019. It first appeared as a concept in Thomas More’s Utopia (1551), a book that — given its references to slaves-per-household and golden chamberpots — can hardly be held up as a beacon for progressive politics. 

In the intervening years, the idea drifted in and out of the mainstream, ultimately finding favour in the 21st century with both Silicon Valley elites and a certain type of Northern European thinker. That changed when Yang made it a central part of his offering to voters. 

So what does this mean for UBI going forward? 

If public opinion around UBI and the global economy continue along their current trajectories, Andrew Yang may end up influencing history almost as much as he would have as president.