Tom Palzewicz is running as a Democrat against one of the most well known and powerful Republicans in the Wisconsin State Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. Palzewicz is running that race in the red 5th Congressional District to replace the retiring Jim Sensenbrenner — who has been in Congress since the Carter administration.
Palzewicz’ campaign against the Senate Majority Leader in a deep red district looks a lot like the campaigns of other Democrats trying to flip conservative districts. He touts his military and business records, he focuses his message on improving healthcare access.
There is one difference, however. Palzewicz is also proposing a universal basic income — a progressive policy idea most famously championed by former Democratic Presidential nominee Andrew Yang.
Palzewicz says that as the world becomes more automated, there will be fewer available jobs and people will need a safety net to help them survive while they figure out what’s next. That’s where the basic income comes in.
“What we’re really looking at is, as things get automated, we need to create an environment where they get their healthcare covered and there’s a chance for lifelong learning,” Palzewicz says. “UBI comes in where there’s a safety net.”
“Especially in the 5th Congressional District where a lot of jobs are going to be disrupted, especially in the manufacturing area,” he continues. “UBI or guaranteed basic income, those are the things we have to study more but it seems to be a way to help people who need it better themselves.”
There are a number of policy ideas around providing Americans with direct cash payments to help them make ends meet. These ideas fall along a continuum, according to Natalie Foster, co-chair of the Economic Security Project (ESP).
“The big idea is everyone deserves income with no strings attached, everyone deserves an income floor,” Foster says. “Then there are a ton of policy choices in terms of how you’d implement that. I think these differences come to policy levers and mechanisms for getting the cash out.”
There’s a negative income tax — a policy idea pitched in the late 1960s by Richard Nixon. A negative income tax reverses the direction taxes are paid. Earners above a certain income continue to pay taxes to the government while earners below a certain income are paid by the government to bring them to a baseline level of income.
A separate idea, one that’s backed by Foster’s ESP, is expanding the earned income tax credit (EITC). The EITC allows families below a certain income level to receive a credit beginning with their first dollar of earned income, reaching a maximum and phasing out at higher income levels.
ESP proposes expanding this credit to allow more people to qualify.
There’s the Alaska Permanent Fund, which has been around for decades. A portion of revenue made from the state’s mineral deposits is put into the fund and each year state residents receive a dividend. Foster says other places that aren’t as mineral rich as Alaska could create a similar dividend using a carbon tax.
Finally, there are proposals of a guaranteed basic income and a universal basic income nationwide.
A guaranteed basic income provides cash payments to people under a certain level of wealth. This idea has the backing of a number of mayors in cities across the country who are members of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income — a coalition of big and small city mayors, among them Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway.
In Milwaukee, Alder Chantia Lewis has proposed a pilot program to give $500 a month to low-income families.
A guaranteed basic income is means-tested. There are a number of bills currently in Congress that would create a guaranteed basic income, Foster says. The differences are just where the line is drawn.
“I think the term, a guaranteed income, is gaining momentum in part because it understands the big idea is the guarantee,” Foster says. “ It’s less in who it goes to and more that it’s guaranteed to people who need it. It’s not promising to meet your basic needs, it’s promising there’s an income you can count on.”
“That is the terminology Dr. King used when he was advocating for a guaranteed minimum income in his last book,” she continues. “He writes … the only way to abolish poverty is to create a guaranteed minimum income.”
A universal basic income, which Palzewicz says he supports because of its fairness, means literally giving every American periodic direct payments.
“I’m leaning toward the idea of UBI, it’s fair then,” he says. “It’s a lot like Social Security, if you pay into the system you get paid out of the system. There’s a lot of people that make between $30-40,000 a year and if there’s a UBI it would dramatically change their lives. They could retire through their own means, maybe invest some of that money.”
Sachin Chheda, a Milwaukee-based political consultant who works with ESP, says it isn’t that surprising that a Democrat running in a conservative district would propose a UBI because the idea doesn’t neatly fit a traditional ideological box.
“This transcends traditional left-right lines in terms of how you build an economy and construct a tax system,” Chheda says. “It’s great that [Palzewicz] is putting a proposal forward. We think we’re going to see more of this as the fissures in the economy, exposed by the crisis, will continue to expand across the country.”
Chheda says the story is bigger than just Palzewicz, the story is that the direct payments included in the first COVID-19 relief bill showed people that this type of policy can work. That $1,200 payment, part of the emergency coronavirus relief package passed by Congress, moved the floor of the debate. As talks continue over another round of relief, the discussion isn’t if there should be a direct payment, but how much and how often people should be paid.
“Tom is one candidate in a tough-to-win race in a competitive presidential state,” Chheda says. “The larger picture is the ground has shifted on the expectations people have on the government giving them benefits. If there’s another coronavirus bill, it’s assumed by all parties it will include another direct payment check.”
Palzewicz, as he talks to voters in his district, says he’s found openness to the idea from Republicans. For a party that is typically opposed to government red tape, a UBI can actually cut down on that, Palzewicz says.
“We’re not talking about an amount people can be comfortable at, it’s an amount that allows people to not suffer,” he says. “The Republican mindframe is bootstraps, but you need to provide these things to people. “It has a chance to get rid of our food stamps program, welfare payments, Medicaid. What it does is create this level playing field because everybody gets UBI, it’s not just people who are in need. I think it creates a more level playing field for people to go benefit themselves.”
Chheda didn’t quite agree that a basic income plan could eliminate other government programs, but he did say a basic income can be sold to Republicans if pitched in the right way.
“One argument I hear Republicans respond to, Republicans are skeptical of government bureaucracy,” he says. “What we’ve done with our safety net is make it incredibly bureaucratic and complex. It’s a full-time job for a low-income or poor person to navigate the bureaucracy. I think people deserve help and we shouldn’t get rid of the safety net. But people realize giving cash directly is simpler.”
Polling on the issue would seem to back that up. A Public Policy Polling survey of battleground Congressional districts found 70% support for government spending “whatever it takes” to meet people’s basic needs.
For now, there are several bills in Congress and a number of pilot programs across the country. Palzewicz isn’t the first candidate to throw his weight behind a UBI, though Foster says there haven’t been that many in conservative areas like the 5th District.
Palzewicz says he just wants to make sure the 5th District and the country are ready for what the future brings.
“The biggest thing to me is, one of the reasons I’m running as a Democrat is that Democrats are thinking about where we’re going versus. where we’ve been,” he says. “Government needs to be out in front of where we’re going, not trying to get back to some place. These kinds of things always take some time but if we don’t start these conversations now we’re going to be behind.”
The Fitzgerald campaign did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.