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Lessons for the US from Colombia’s Universal Basic Income Program 

May 14, 2021

By Brandon Mooney

This week, as center-left Democrats and some of America has begun to discuss universal basic income (UBI) and what welfare programs will look like in the post-pandemic future, I thought that we could look to the recent protests that rocked Colombia for an example of what not to do.

Policy Summary:

This week, as center-left Democrats and some of America has begun to discuss universal basic income (UBI) and what welfare programs will look like in the post-pandemic future, I thought that we could look to the recent protests that rocked Colombia for an example of what not to do. For those who don’t know, UBI is a state-funded social program where a decided amount of money is sent to all citizens within a designated population group without the condition of a certain employment status or other test. Basically, it’s a regular check from the government to everyone within a selected population. Supporters of UBI have been calling for its adoption across the world as the pandemic has sparked mass unemployment, limited job growth, and tanked economies.

So where does Colombia fit into this picture? With the pandemic causing the worst downturn in Colombia’s already-weak economy in the past 40 years, the administration of President Iván Duque Márquez followed the lead of many other countries in Latin America in the institution of an experimental UBI program called “Ingreso Solidario.” To Duque’s credit, this was a big step, as UBI is still a controversial idea with heavy opposition. However, the program came under early fire for being far more limited in scope than Colombia’s neighbors, with some blaming this on the influence of Duque’s mentor, former President Álvaro Uribe, a right-wing politician favoring government austerity. Ingreso Solidario only covered a little over 5% of Colombia’s population, and many more Colombians were suffering and clamored for the program to be expanded.

The Duque government, to its credit, decided that it would expand the program to another 3% of its population and make it permanent. Although Ingreso Solidario wouldn’t even qualify 10% of Colombia’s population, it was something. However, Duque decided that in order to pay for it, the government would reform the current tax code with a tax increase on goods and services and on a portion of the middle-class. This was not the right move. In a country already struggling with corruption, high unemployment, and staggering wealth inequality, this understandably did not go over well.

What followed was over a week of massive protests, civil disobedience, vandalism, and police violence, concentrated largely in Colombia’s main metropolitan cities. Tens of thousands would march and demonstrate, with Duque deploying the military. Although the numbers given in official government reports were lower than citizen and human rights reports, dozens of protesters were killed across the country and videos circulated on social media platforms showing the use of excessive force by authorities and live fire against civilians. Duque would eventually withdraw his tax reform but argued that it was inevitable and needed.

Analysis:

I’m sure that in the coming months and years, the protests in Colombia against Ingreso Solidario will be tossed in the faces of UBI supporters by fiscal conservatives arguing that it is proof that UBI programs are unpopular or doomed to fail. However, this would be a gross over-simplification of why the protests occurred and have even continued in many cities across Colombia.

First, UBI is supported by progressives as a way to strike back against the wage exploitation of the working class and poor by the wealthy. Therefore, increasing taxes on the middle class and on goods and services that everyone uses to pay for such a program is a ridiculous farce of its ultimate goal and a recipe for disaster. Second, Ingreso Solidario seemed to be working for those that received payments. Sure, it was limited to only a few and many more needed assistances, but it was certainly helping those families that received it. It was helping enough that the Colombian government was going to expand it and make it a permanent fixture. Third, you can’t convince people who are struggling that they should shoulder the burden when the wealthy are seemingly untouched. As of 2020, Colombia had only a 1% tax on those with a net worth over $1.3 million..

It is true that there are many other reasons why Colombians protested, ranging from police corruption to poverty to the use of certain pesticides to the government’s support of peace with paramilitary groups. Saying that protests in the U.S. will happen for the same reasons and in the same manner as in Colombia would be untrue and at best palm reading, but the protests in Colombia stand as an example of the consequences of political preferentialism. The catalyst was the Duque administration attempting to pay for a UBI system meant to help those most in need with a tax on the middle class. This was the metaphorical straw that broke the camel’s back, and we in America should not be ignorant of the Colombia people’s plight. It serves as both a reminder of what is to come if our government continues to favor elites and what shouldn’t be sacrificed to make progressive gains.

Engagement Sources:

Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia – as one of the world’s largest coffee exporters, much of Colombia’s people are dependent on the trade, and this organization works for the betterment of these farmers.

Human Rights Watch – an internationally-recognized organization working to force policymakers across the globe to address human rights violations and work towards a peaceful future.

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