• Steph Shuff

Layoffs, Pandemics, & Economic Collapse: My decision to join the basic income movement.

Updated: Apr 22

On a hot Monday afternoon, I pulled into my driveway after a week of work travel. My phone rang, and my boss's name popped up on the screen. Our call, which would be our last, went for a few minutes at most. It ended with me hanging up in the middle of one of her sentences. Call it shock, anger, sadness. Likely, it was some combination of all of the above.

"We're not going to extend your contract," she told me. "Today is your last day with the company."

It was three days before Thanksgiving, and one week before my birthday. Is there a good time to get laid off? I don't think so.

A year prior, the same company that was laying me off had switched me from a full-time, salaried employee to an independent contractor, a situation I had accepted out of financial need, without really considering the long-term ramifications. Now, on the brink of unemployment, the consequences of that choice hit me hard. The company that was laying me off had been my only source of income for two years. I didn't have any other "clients." I could not file for unemployment. I had no right to any kind of severance. My company could wash their hands of me and walk off. Later that day, I received a text from the CEO, with whom I had developed a great working relationship. "I am happy to provide a recommendation," he offered.

Luckily, I had a soft financial cushion to land on. I had already been living rent-free with my parents for over a year. I had some money saved up. I had the luxury of time to regroup and find a new job.

Regardless, the emotional landing one experiences after being pushed off the precarious cliff of self-employment is a hard one. Additional tax burdens, higher costs of healthcare, and a lack of access to unemployment benefits mean that no matter how much money I had saved up, it wouldn't last me very long.

For six weeks, I slogged through the sticky mud of depression. If my creative writing from that time tells you anything about how I was feeling, the obvious answer is, "Not good." Eventually, I found a few lifelines in the form of friends and former colleagues who were going through similar circumstances. I began to feel less alone.

As I waded through the fog of financial, emotional, and mental vulnerability, I had a lot of time to think. I thought about what it means to be vulnerable, and about how we think about taking care of each other. I wondered - where would I be if I didn't have a supportive family? Where would I be living? What jobs would I have turned to? What amount of desperation might I be feeling?

As a global pandemic sets in, and people start to experience - on a mass scale - layoffs and the loss of their economic and bodily security, I can only hope that this experience reaffirms our interconnectedness, rather than giving people reason to believe we can ever truly disconnect from one another. The truth is, we are all part of the same system. The idea that we can ever truly disconnect from each other is a myth.

It makes me think about poverty. Because of the way our economy is structured, and due to the absolute power that employers have over our lives, most of us are just a few months shy of poverty at any given time. A job loss, a recession, or a major health event are, on their own, enough to push many of us off the cliff of economic certainty. But all three of those things together? How many of us are about to be in a free-fall? How many of us already are?

For a long time, poverty has been vilified as the end-result of laziness, under-preparedness, or irresponsibility. But as our recent economic troubles have shown, how many of us fall into this category based on the economy we live in, and not because of the “irresponsible” choices we make?

I cannot help but think of the timeliness of my new position on the Board of Directors for the Income Movement Foundation, a newly formed organization devoted to the idea of a universal basic income.

Universal basic income has been around for a while, but it gained widespread popularity during the Andrew Yang Presidential campaign, which I covered as part of my work with The Young Turks. I got to be in a room with Andrew Yang more than once, and it was clear to me and so many like me that he was not your typical politician. As evidenced by the fact that his "long-shot" presidential campaign outlasted many others, I think his inherent "outsiderness" was part of his appeal. He was the kind, caring, capable answer to Donald Trump. He opened up the door to the idea that MATH and compassion are sexy, and huge swaths of supporters flooded in behind him.

As it turns out, Yang may have ended his campaign for the presidency just a moment too soon. While Congress is working hard to inject $1.5 trillion into the stock market in an effort to bail out Wall Street, many people, including Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and more are calling for a "people's bailout" in the form of a $2,000 per month cash transfer to every American. This is a universal basic income. It is also the fastest, most deployable way to respond to the crisis of COVID-19 in this moment.

I am not what you would think of when you consider someone on the edge of poverty. Corporate-driven marketing campaigns have led us to believe that poor people are lazy and irresponsible, but I am neither. I am from a middle-class family. I attended a great college. I have worked almost every day of my life since I was fifteen. I have had an amazing career full of great opportunities. And still, I find myself in a precarious situation, as do millions of other Americans, as a direct result of COVID-19.

Financial instability is not only the result of individual irresponsibility, as those in power would have us believe (and I wonder, aren't those in power the ones who benefit most from that belief?). In many cases, it is the symptom of an economy that is designed to keep people in a revolving door of credit and lending, so that those with money can make money off their money. It is the result of an economy designed to give all the power to corporations, and very little of it to the labor that those corporations require (for now) to stay in business. But what happens when a global pandemic or an economic collapse or a technological innovation comes to disrupt everything? It seems as though we are about to find out. Suddenly, poverty is knocking on the doors of hundreds of millions of people.

A universal basic income is not designed to enable people, but then again, when did enabling people become such a negative thing? People are vulnerable - it is a human condition to have to depend on others: we depend on others when we are young, when we are old, when we are sick, and when we are sad. A universal basic income is meant to give people power, and choice, and in the event of uncertainty, a softer landing. Don't we all deserve the chance to both offer and receive the gift of economic power in our communities?

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that we cannot believe the myth that disconnection is possible. Instead, we should knit ourselves together even more closely. We should start believing that we can and should look out for those of us who are most vulnerable, because right now, the most vulnerable among us is all of us.

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