Columbia Anti-Poverty Scholar Nadasen: COVID-19 Underscores Need for Basic Income


The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent and non-partisan anti-poverty think tank, wanted to know what academics studying poverty around the country are thinking about COVID-19. So we reached out to Premilla Nadasen, one of the nation’s leading voices on the issues of poverty and inequality in the academy. She wrote in a 2017 Washington Post column, that we could be headed for worse economic conditions such as the one we are facing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. She is a member of the faculty of the History Department at Columbia University, and an associate professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, where she researches and writes about race, gender, social policy, and labor history. She is the author of several books including Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (2005), which chronicles the emergence of a distinctive brand of feminism forged by black women on welfare, and Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement (2015), a history of domestic worker activism in the postwar period.

In this Q&A interview with journalist Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, Nadasen, a scholar-activist, talks about the impact of the pandemic on black people and vulnerable communities, the need for some kind of a universal basic income, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program and more. Read on.

PULSE: Many urban cities like Detroit, Chicago and New Orleans have taken a hit on the coronavirus because of health inequities, which have made these communities more vulnerable to the virus. Do you feel that this pandemic has vindicated anti-poverty advocates and academics like yourself?

PREMILLA NADASEN: Certainly many academics have been warning about the social, economic, and human cost of health inequities. We are seeing the dire consequences of that play out. The health inequities have made some communities, especially the African American community, experience much higher rates of infection and death from the disease. There are also inequities in terms of access to health care and economic resources. Some of the most devastating consequences have occurred in prisons, jails, and detention facilities, where people are confined in close quarters and are not getting the protective equipment and health care they need. There is also evidence of the spread in homeless encampments. So, we have to consider how vulnerability is manifesting at this moment and ensure that people have the specific kind of assistance that they need.

PULSE Since President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, there’s never been perhaps a consequential federally-mandated program to fight poverty. Does the coronavirus present that opportunity for the federal government to do what Johnson did during the height of the Civil Rights Movement?

PREMILLA NADASEN: The Great Society was one model for fighting poverty.  It included a number of job training and education initiatives, expansion of the food stamp, Social Security, and unemployment insurance programs, Medicare and Medicaid, and services for the poor.  One of the most important components of the Great Society was the Community Action Program, in which the federal government provided funding for and encouraged political engagement among the poor. It enabled poor people to determine what was in their own best interest and develop their own anti-poverty programs.  We can and should consider expanding the safety net right now and could model some of that on the Great Society. We could also initiate a massive federal jobs program to employ people as (President) Roosevelt did during the New Deal. There is definitely a need for health care workers, for people to educate and care for children, staff food pantries, and deliver basic necessities to the elderly and disabled. But, in addition, given how this pandemic has created economic hardship, I believe we should consider some kind of universal basic income so everyone is ensured a minimum standard of living. Proposals such as this were discussed in the 1960s. The welfare rights movement proposed a Guaranteed Annual Income and (President) Richard Nixon proposed a Family Assistance Plan.  Although those didn’t pass, it might be time to bring them back onto our political agenda.

PULSE: Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty said recently that millions of people in the US could plunge into poverty if the right steps are not taken to mitigate the spread and its impact on vulnerable communities. Do you think the federal government understands the weight of this national health crisis?

PREMILLA NADASEN: Unfortunately, I don’t think that the federal government is attuned to the gravity of the situation. I’m not sure if it is ignorance or callous disregard, but there has been an utter failure of leadership from President Trump, who has not provided the necessary resources or coordination, and even more egregiously, has given dangerous misinformation and downplayed the crisis. As a result, over 50,000 Americans have lost their lives and over 25 million have filed for unemployment. If there ever was a moment to demonstrate national leadership this is it.

PULSE: The coronavirus stimulus package has been lauded by the Administration of Donald Trump as a means to help struggling families during this pandemic. Does it go far in addressing the crisis of inequality facing many families right now?

PREMILLA NADASEN: The stimulus packages of $3 trillion is absolutely unprecedented in terms of scale of federal assistance. The biggest portion of that went to large corporations, small businesses, and state and local governments.  Money did go to food programs, hospitals, schools, colleges, and an extension of unemployment insurance. But the meager $1200 to low-income individuals will do little to address the economic hardship of ordinary people.  People have been furloughed, lost their jobs, or had their hours reduced. Some won’t be able to find jobs anytime in the near future. And we cannot conflate the interests of working people with the interests of corporations. They are often at odds. Because of this assistance needs to be targeted to those who are the most vulnerable. 

Premilla Nadasen has won fellowships and honors for her work, including the American Studies Association’s John Hope Franklin Book Prize, the Sara Whaley Book Prize, and the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Article Prize. In addition to her academic writing Nadasen has been engaged with social justice work for many years, including anti-apartheid and anti-racist activism, labor rights, feminism, immigrant rights, and low-income women’s advocacy.

PULSE: Does COVID-19 change the prevailing rhetoric about poverty being self-inflicted as opposed to a preexisting condition that affects many people in this nation?

PREMILLA NADASEN: There is so much evidence that poverty is not self-inflicted. All we have to do is look at the fluctuating business/employment cycles, declining real wages over the past several decades, and the cost of housing and health care. It is simply not possible for most people to make ends meet on a minimum wage or typical low-wage job. A study done a few years ago showed that over 50% of Americans will experience poverty or near poverty at some point in their lives.

PULSE: What should Congress be prepared to do to mitigate the spread of the virus in the nation, especially in places that are dealing with inequities?

PREMILLA NADASEN: Stopping the spread of the virus is critical. So, we should shelter in place so our hospital systems are not overwhelmed. But we also need testing on a massive scale and to provide the sick with appropriate care. Congress must ensure that hospitals and nursing homes are adequately staffed and all health care workers have the necessary protective equipment. We have to ensure that food assistance and other services are available to those people who are sheltering.  But we also need to be mindful that sheltering in place is sometimes not possible because home can be an unsafe space, a site of violence or abuse. Or people don’t have a home. So, the broader structural issues that compromise safety should be addressed. The cost of this health crisis cannot and should not be borne by individual states, health care providers, businesses, schools, or families. This is a long-term problem that requires a long-term solution, not stop-gap measures.

PULSE: In a Washington Post column in 2017, you wrote about the rise of extreme poverty in the US: “If this trend continues, we will undoubtedly see the number of extremely poor Americans rise dramatically, imperiling the values of democracy and human rights.” Is that where we are with the coronavirus pandemic?

PREMILLA NADASEN: That’s exactly where we are.  There are disturbing images of people waiting for hours for food donations, of food pantries with empty shelves, and people dying at home. The shelter in place orders make it hard to know how some people are faring. There might be a lot happening behind closed doors that we cannot see.  New York has a serious homeless problem and right now the homeless are being pushed out of public spaces.  What does it mean to shelter in place when you have no shelter? And, of course, millions are out of work and hundreds, perhaps thousands of businesses will be unable to reopen. I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of this yet. We will be dealing with the economic and human consequences for this for a long time.

PULSE: About 22 million Americans have already filed for unemployment benefits due to the virus. Does this pandemic raise the debate about the need for a new safety net in the coming 2020 presidential election?

PREMILLA NADASEN: Conversations about a universal basic income and universal health care have been on the table for quite some time. Prior to this crisis, income inequality was at its highest rate in a hundred years. The pandemic has exposed how inequity leads to desperation and death.  We have to talk about how to provide basic human needs to people: housing, food, and health care at the very least. Without that our democracy would be imperiled. How can people be active engaged citizens if they don’t have a home or food to eat? Providing economic support to ordinary Americans—not just shoring up the private sector—has to be front and center in the election.

PULSE: In your book, Welfare Warriors, you painted in definitive terms, the important role of African American women in the fight for racial and economic justice. Does COVID-19 revive the debate about the welfare state.

PREMILLA NADASEN: I think we need a reimagined welfare state, one that redistributes from the well off to the less well off. One that accounts for racial disparity, gender inequality, disability, and age. We need to take into account the unacknowledged care work that so many people do for friends, family and neighbors. Part of what I learned through writing that book is that the best ideas often come from those on the front lines of poverty. So, I would urge us to look to the needy, those communities that are hurting the most, for ideas about reimagining a way forward.

PULSE: Even in poor countries, the coronavirus is taking a hit. How should the international community meet the challenge of this global pandemic?

PREMILLA NADASEN: From a purely self-interested point of view, the pandemic needs to be addressed simultaneously everywhere. It doesn’t work to stamp it out in one place. Some countries have more resources and capability than other countries and we must find a way to distribute those resources. But our policy cannot be driven by self-interest alone. Millions of people will die. At its core, this is a humanitarian crisis. In 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that asserted, among other things, that everyone has a right to an adequate standard of living. Perhaps it is time to resurrect that document.

PULSE: According to the World Bank, the impact of the coronavirus will stop 24 million people from escaping poverty in East Asia and the Pacific. Do international institutions have the capacity to respond to this kind of threat to humanity?

PREMILLA NADASEN: I think we have the capacity. The question for me is do we have the will? Not only has President Trump failed to demonstrate leadership nationally, he has failed to demonstrate leadership globally. Cutting funding to the World Health Organization right now is perhaps the worst move one could make.  Just as this is both a health crisis and an economic crisis in the United States, it is both a health crisis and an economic crisis in other parts of the world. Part of our response needs to be about human survival and economic sustainability, not profit or growth.

PULSE: What is your worst fear about COVID-19?

PREMILLA NADASEN: My worst fears about COVID-19 are already playing out:  the devaluation of some lives relative to other lives.  We already see some of this with the rationing of health care and selective distribution of PPE. We already see this in terms of who has access to health care. We already see this with front-line workers who are essential but have been treated as disposable. We’ve already seen evidence of heightened xenophobia and racism and the targeting of particular communities. So, we could easily, and perhaps are moving in a direction where some lives matter more than others.

At the same time, I see evidence of collective efforts, not just in New York but all around the country, where people are extending a hand, helping neighbors, delivering food, and creating spaces of caring and support. My hope is that those become models for how we can collectively address this pandemic.


  1. Thank you for shining a bright light on a problem that will continue to haunt America, continue to destroy communities, families and individuals through no fault of their own. We can never, ever be the Great America we’d like to claim as long as we willfully, purposefully leave so many behind.

  2. It’s refreshing to listen to rational thinking in this world of irrational leaders only interested in self promotion.
    Thank You, for allowing us an ear to the conversation.

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