Something for Nothing: Universal Basic Income and the Value of Work Beyond Incentives

26 WASH. & LEE J. CIV. RTS. & SOC. JUST. 1 (2019)

85 Pages Posted: 2 Apr 2020

Date Written: 2019


Proponents and opponents of a universal basic income all acknowledge that the most significant political challenge to its adoption in the United States is that a universal basic income would not have a work requirement attached. Often, this is characterized as a problem involving incentives—the availability of a universal basic income would cause many people to stop working (or significantly curtail the number of hours that they work) and simply live off the universal basic income. This Article makes three contributions to the literature related to a universal basic income: First, it provides a typology for understanding the many reasons for valuing work; second, it argues that the United States is unlikely to implement a universal basic income because a universal basic income does not account for several aspects of the value of work; and, third, it argues that advocates of a universal basic income should instead focus on the more modest goal of redefining the activities that constitute work and broadening the social safety net by expanding existing policies through the use of a broader definition of work. This Article proposes that the value of work in American political culture has four primary dimensions: 1) reciprocity, that one receives rewards for one’s labor, that one gets what one gives and that no one should be a free rider, one who gets but does not give; 2) calling or vocation, that work is a calling or vocation that one should have or pursue, and that only those that have or pursue such a calling or vocation have moral standing; 3) self sufficiency, that work promotes self sufficiency, which is a necessary component of liberty and which is necessary to avoid dependency; and 4) incentives, of an economic kind, that society should encourage work because it increases the size of the economic pie. These categories provide a new framework for thinking about the value of work and for evaluating policies that relate to the working lives of Americans. As an alternative to the adoption of a universal basic income, this Article proposes that proponents of a universal basic income should focus on expanding and redefining current policies, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit so that they more closely resemble a participation income. In fact, a broader definition of work has even been used in recent conservative policy ideas, such as the Medicaid work requirements that some states have introduced, which include within their definition of work the activities of education, job training, and community service. This Article closes with an outline of a proposal to adopt an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit that resembles a participation income and addresses each of the dimensions of the value of work.

Keywords: Tax Policy, Universal Basic Income, Participation Income, Poverty, Poverty Law, Earned Income Tax Credit

JEL Classification: H24, K34

Suggested Citation

Grossberg, Jonathan, Something for Nothing: Universal Basic Income and the Value of Work Beyond Incentives (2019). 26 WASH. & LEE J. CIV. RTS. & SOC. JUST. 1 (2019), Available at SSRN: or

Jonathan Grossberg (Contact Author)

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