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Q&A: What Could Universal Basic Income Mean for Appalachia?


Historically, the coal industry has shaped the economic boom and bust cycle in our region. But major changes to the industry have created new strains on our economic system here in Appalachia, and some wonder if a radical fix is needed to support the poor or underemployed middle class. Some Democrats in Congress have pointed to an idea, called Basic Universal Income, as one possible solution. Lovey Cooper, contributing editor with 100 Days in Appalachia, co-wrote an article about Basic Universal Income, or UBI,  and about what supporters and critics of this proposed economic program have to say.

The job market in Appalachia isn’t great. Issues like mechanization are partly to blame, and analysts say it’s only expected to get worse.

“Depending on the study you cite, automation will replace anywhere from 9 to 50 percent of American jobs,” Leah Hamilton, assistant professor of social work at Appalachian State University and a supporter of UBI, said. “Even if it’s only nine percent, we know that those in lower-skilled jobs will be affected the most.”

So robots, essentially, are going to be replacing a lot of jobs over the next generation. Some Democrats in Congress are suggesting the answer to the problem is Universal Basic Income. 

UBI—a federally-provided, no-strings-attached monthly payment to all U.S. adults, similar to Social Security—has been proposed as a potential solution to rampant poverty since Richard Nixon’s presidency. More recently, it has emerged as part of the Green New Deal, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal found initial support from at least 40 members of Congress.

Economic theories aimed at giving low-income communities more cash-based aid are often modeled on urban impact. But there is growing interest in examining how UBI—a policy that has drawn bipartisan curiosity and support—could be a potential answer for generations of poverty in rural America as well. 

In Appalachia, experts believe that by further reducing the cost of living through supplemental payments, the UBI could help mitigate the rampant issues of scarce job opportunities and fleeting businesses and could encourage greater regional equality for the region with the rest of the nation. To read the full report by 100 Days in Appalachia about UBI, click here

This story was co-published with Spotlight for Poverty and Opportunity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan site featuring commentaries and original journalism about poverty and mobility.

Lovey Cooper is a contributing editor with 100 Days in Appalachia and engagement editor at Scalawag magazine. Her work focuses on policy, justice, and the intersection of politics and culture in the South and Appalachia.

Liz Price studies Feminist Studies and Appalachian regional policy at Ohio State University where she is working on a manuscript on the racial logics of the American opioid crisis.