Sophie B. Laing


Interest in Universal Basic Income (UBI) is growing. While Congress may not be passing UBI legislation anytime soon, the policy has enjoyed enthusiastic support from a variety of high-profile politicians and advocates and made its way from a fringe idea to a national debate. Universal Basic Income has inspired pilot programs across the country, beginning with one such program in 2019 and growing to at least thirty-three by 2021. UBI has been discussed, debated, and dissected in the literature, which has addressed arguments for and against UBI, the values and principles underlying the program, and the policy mechanisms needed to implement it. But despite the ubiquity of debt in American society, the interactions between debt and UBI have only recently begun to be explored. Americans have more debt than ever before, and American society continues to be fueled by credit. If the federal government were to implement UBI on a national scale, the program would necessarily interact with this phenomenon of American debt.

The first round of stimulus checks during the pandemic revealed the necessity of considering debt when constructing a national program to deliver direct payments to Americans. Debtors were not categorically ineligible for the stimulus checks, yet many did not receive them. Instead, the payments were seized by creditors as they were en route to Americans struggling with medical debts, past due utilities, student loans, and rent. They were counting on the stimulus checks to pay for essentials. The seizure of stimulus checks demonstrates the need for debtor protections in any social program, especially in a UBI program.

This Article adds to the UBI literature by arguing that discussion of UBI is not complete without the consideration of debt, using COVID stimulus checks as a case study. Given the credit-heavy nature of American society, a debtor protection is necessary to fully and fairly implement a UBI program in the United States.

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