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Pope Francis endorses universal basic income on Easter Sunday?

For Christians, Easter Sunday commemorates the good news of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. For leftists, this Easter brought the good news that Pope Francis seemingly endorsed a universal basic income.

The pope raised the controversial topic in a message to the World Meeting of Popular Movements. The letter, which is dated April 12, bears Pope Francis’ signature.

The pope began by presenting common laborers as the victims of global trade who are “excluded from the benefits of globalization” but “always suffer from the harm they produce.” Then he highlighted the value of work and the problem of idleness: “[C]arnies, small farmers, construction workers, dressmakers, the different kinds of caregivers: you who are informal, working on your own or in the grassroots economy, you have no steady income to get you through this hard time ... and the lockdowns are becoming unbearable.”

“This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out,” the letter, signed by Pope Francis, states. “It would ensure and concretely achieve the ideal, at once so human and so Christian, of no worker without rights.”

The pontiff said he hopes a UBI will pave the way for the full transformation of society. He called for a “humanist and ecological conversion that puts an end to the idolatry of money and places human life and dignity at the center.” The new order will end globalization’s “extravagant luxuries, its disproportionate profits for just a few.”

Ultimately, Pope Francis told the community organizers, the system will give way to “universal access to those three Ts that you defend: Trabajo (work), Techo (housing), and Tierra (land and food).”

His words found a welcome audience on the political Left, Catholic and secular alike. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang and the AFL-CIO tweeted their approval. The radical feminist website Wonkette—which once degraded Sarah Palin’s son Trig as “retarded” and a “political prop”—proclaimed, “The Pope Goes Commie On Us. We Approve.” And the Jesuit-run magazine America ran two articles the same day, one of which helpfully noted that “Catholics worked in parallel with communists to create … democratically owned businesses.”

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Last summer, America published a glowing essay titled “The Catholic Case for Communism,” which praised the most destructive force in Church history without as much as a single critical remark. However, the publication asked a worthwhile question: “Why is the head of the Roman Catholic Church advocating a little-tested, still-radical economic policy?” Perhaps a more precise question would be, “Why is the pope advocating an economic policy that decades of tests prove would not accomplish his stated goals?”

Pope Francis has previously included the UBI in a list of “economic rights.” This letter upholds a “universal basic wage” for “workers.” However, the UBI is not a wage; it is a handout to the industrious and the idle alike.

Although the UBI remains popular with segments of the Left and Right, tests prove it discourages work and reduces recipients’ earnings. These tests have taken place on multiple continents and stretch back five decades. Evidence for the failure of the UBI is UBI-quitous.

Among the most recent examples is Finland, where the government gave 2,000 randomly selected citizens approximately €560 ($685 U.S.) a month for two years, 2017 and 2018. The government posited that paying people not to work would increase employment. Unsurprisingly, its post-mortem report found that the experiment did no such thing.

“The results were disappointing,” said Heikki Hiilamo, a professor of social policy at the University of Helsinki. “Basic income recipients did not have more work days or higher incomes than those in the control group.”

The same conclusions surfaced in a contemporary experiment in the province of Ontario, Canada. The $150 million (Canadian) program, which was to run from 2017 until 2020, selected 4,000 people to receive a defined income. However, the new Conservative government pulled the plug on the program, saying the UBI is “clearly not the answer for Ontario families,” and its cost is “certainly not going to be sustainable.”

The government also stopped collecting data on the program’s results, so a team of academics sympathetic to the program launched a full-fledged survey of Ontario’s UBI recipients. “Overall, there was a slight reduction in the number employed,” they found. UBI recipients were more than three times as likely to move from employment to unemployment than vice-versa; they were twice as likely to drop out of the workforce altogether than to begin new education or training. Those who were unemployed were less likely to learn new job skills than those already employed.

The United States came to the same conclusions in the 1970s. Multiple pilot programs tested the “negative income tax.” The longest-lasting of these took place in Seattle and Denver, where the government guaranteed income at different levels for up to five years. Its final report in 1983 found that husbands reduced their work by as much as 234 hours a year. Participants “did not find measurably better jobs” than they had before—and the longest, most generous guarantees induced people to cut their hours the most. Some participants entered school, but it was not “typically job-related,” so their lost income was “not compensated for by any job-related skills acquired during the subsidy program.”

However, the program guaranteed the same level of income to people individually or families. This caused the divorce rate to skyrocket, so each participant could receive the full income guarantee. Surely no faithful Catholics would wish to support a program that increases divorce?

Uniformly negative results have not dissuaded true believers from endorsing UBI, or politicians from launching new experiments expecting different results. UBI programs are currently underway from California to Kenya. Democratic socialists now advocate replacing coronavirus stimulus checks with a panoply of socialist programs, including the UBI. “This is a New Deal-type moment,” said Michael Tubbs, the 29-year-old mayor overseeing an ongoing pilot in Stockton, California.

He’s right. The government-induced economic shutdown is pregnant with the possibility of miscalculation. Sweeping government programs still carry all the unintended consequences and peculiar harms of the 1930s.

Experience should guide lawmakers who hope to fulfill the pope’s intentions of universal access to work, housing, and land. They should repeal misguided policies like an excessive minimum wage and overly generous welfare benefits, which discourage hiring, encourage automation, disincentivize welfare recipients from leaving government dependence, and cage the productive capacity of the economy. They would reject rent control, which gives landlords an incentive to let older homes to deteriorate and to gouge new tenants in order to make up for lost income. These and other statist policies have turned California into the homeless capital of the United States. Short-term emergency relief, followed by reopening the economy at the earliest practicable moment, pair best with low, flat tax rates and a lighter regulatory footprint. They have brought the nation economic prosperity whose only sin lies in provoking envy.

No amount of belief can save the universal basic income. The UBI is unworthy of anyone’s faith.

(Photo credit: Long Thiên. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.