January Fifteenth by Rachel Swirsky

Hey everyone! It’s been a while since I blogged, but this was too much to stick into a long twitter thread!

I’ve been looking forward to reading January Fifteenth by award-winning author Rachel Swirsky. In it, she follows the lives of four people on January 15th- UBI distribution day in a future America. I finally got a chance to curl up with the book and I have OPINIONS! (Surprise, surprise, surprise)

Firstly, I really appreciate that she presented a very nuanced exploration of what a future with UBI might look like- it’s neither perfectly utopian, nor bleakly dystopian. It’s very HUMAN, with differing experiences and opinions, and everyone has their own pros and cons about how society works with a UBI. It does skew dystopian, there’s no story in there where UBI has made someone’s life measurably better without drama, but that wouldn’t be much of a story, would it?

She doesn’t shy away from the fact that UBI in any form isn’t a magic wand that makes poverty and challenges go away. In fact, the way UBI is structured in the book makes very clear some of the things that can go *wrong*, if other systemic issues aren’t addressed simultaneously- from religious groups using UBI as a form of control, to eugenic policies in order for someone to ‘deserve’ their basic income, to the question of using UBI as an excuse for not addressing reparations to groups the US government has caused serious harm to. In the ‘skews dystopian’ sense, the status is still quo. There hasn’t been society-shaking change just because a UBI exists. One of the people we follow in the book is explicitly dealing with that- as a former activist, what was the point?

One of the risks she addresses, that I like to talk about myself, is how UBI would have a *negative* impact on the elderly and disabled, if we didn’t also eliminate asset limits and means testing for services. Leaving those in place while adding in a UBI would mean people would lose housing, medical services, in home services, etc etc. Unless we treat UBI as an independent foundation, that must not impact eligibility for other services and needs, then some of our most vulnerable citizens will end up worse off.

I found it interesting that the UBI distribution happens once a year, rather than monthly. It makes me wonder if this was how it was designed in this USA from the beginning, or if it’s been whittled away by beurocracy over the years. This yearly distribution really makes some of the cracks in the system acute- people feel the pinch of increased taxes all year, but don’t get a return on that investment until January 15th, where barriers to distribution have obviously cropped up- mandating people pick up their checks in person (but postal banking!) if they don’t have the resources to have electronic transfer, long lines, propaganda, and all the mess we can throw at the poor. On the other hand, the rich -those people who don’t need the UBI- have developed a culture of either tossing it mindlessly at charity, or blowing the money in dubious ways, even to contests for who can “waste” the money creatively. All while arguing about what is the right thing to do with money that was “taken” from them in the first place.

I think that’s a very real possibility with a yearly UBI rather than a monthly. For the poor, debt and needs would pile up and become a pressure that may or may not be relieved with a yearly disbursement. For the wealthy, it would become meaningless fun money. A consistent monthly payment would be less likely to cause extremes of need and behavior.

In a very real way, this book is a cautionary tale of what it could look like if we don’t implement UBI in a deeply thoughtful, politician-proof way. If we just drop it into the existing system without taking into account all the other shifts that need to happen- like rent controls, localized minimum wage laws, and ending means testing. An unconditional, universal Basic Income absolutely CAN be a force for good- but not if we don’t apply force across our whole society, and use UBI as a bandage.