It's Basic, a film about universal basic income

It’s Basic, a deeply moving new documentary about universal basic income, shows the shocking thing people do when the government hands them money with no strings attached: They help other people.

The film, which premiered at Tribeca Festival last night and arrives at the Provincetown International Film Festival recently, follows several recipients of $500 to $1,000 monthly payments handed out in cities across the country, from Los Angeles to St. Paul, Minnesota, to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Almost all of the recipients, it turns out, are in the business of helping other people: Several are parents struggling to make ends meet, who also work in fields that involve helping others. We meet a school bus driver raising a relative’s toddlers, a woman working at a group home for adults with mental and physical disabilities, and a dad who left behind a six-figure job to care for his severely autistic son. A single mom who has escaped an abusive relationship uses her $500 monthly payout to help get a license as a medical assistant.

Studies into the programs found that almost none of the money went toward booze, cigarettes, drugs, gambling, or any of the other cartoonish expenditures that critics of universal basic income like to imagine.

Marc Levin, the director of It’s Basic, has covered the fight against crime and poverty for decades in films like Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock, Thug Life in D.C. and Chicagoland. His new doc posits that the solution is the problem of no money… is money.

Who’s paying for this? Different programs have different sources, from private donations to federal COVID payments. The film notes that politicians love to scrutinize payments to poor people, but rarely worry about how billionaires spend the money they receive from government programs.

“We’ve seen the evisceration of the middle class, we’ve seen the decimation of the working class. Sixty percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. So how do we reimagine and reinvent our economy?” asks Levin in a new interview on the MovieMaker podcast, which you can check out on Apple or Spotify or here.

Who Supports Universal Basic Income?

It’s Basic starts with a quote from Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers and an early advocate of a basic income. Others who have embraced the concept, in one form or another, including Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President Richard Nixon, and conservative economist Milton Friedman.

Universal basic income doc It's Basic director Marc Levin and executive producer Michael Tubbs
It’s Basic director Marc Levin and executive producer Michael Tubbs

One notable modern advocate is former Stockton, California mayor Michael Tubbs, an executive producer of It’s Basic who has helped institute universal basic income programs in cities across the country.

In addition to the festival screenings, there are plans to take the film on tour, to inspire talk about universal basic income in communities across the country.

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“This is an idea that has been around, but it’s now almost a subterranean movement, because you wouldn’t know much better watching the news and the recent debt crisis debate and everything we hear out of the Congress in Washington,” says Levin. “But on the local level, there are people experimenting to see… How are we going to provide a floor, so people survive in this modern world, in this 21st century world?

“Can we supply just a basic floor, so that food, shelter, and clothing are supplied for?”

Does Universal Basic Income Work?

Levin says there’s a valid concern that people who set prices — from store owners to landlords — will raise prices upward in response to government payments. But he says other concerns seem to be misplaced. He says all of the pilot programs examined in the film included studies of how people spent their money.

“What’s fascinating is the critique of it is, if you give money away, it’s going to take people’s incentives away, and they’re not going to work, they’re going to waste it on drugs, and alcohol and gambling. And actually, the studies that have been done prove the exact opposite — that it actually enables people to move ahead in their lives to move forward to get better jobs,
to get better educations.

As the film notes, $500 or $1,000 a month isn’t enough to cover anyone expenses — so none of the recipients stopped working. Instead, they spent the money to improve their ability to take care of their loved ones.

The bus driver featured in the film, for example, once needed to limit her work hours in order to qualify for welfare payments. But given that her universal basic income payments from St. Paul came with no strings attached, she was able to work even more hours than she did before.

“It empowers people. It’s an investment, not simply a giveaway,” says Levin.

Main image: A still from the universal basic income doc It’s Basic,