Hawaii considers country's first Universal Basic Income

The controversial proposal, which is gaining traction in the state legislature, would attempt to counteract jobs lost to automation with a guaranteed living wage.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

State lawmakers in Hawaii have voted to explore the nation's first Universal Basic Income (UBI).

A controversial idea, though one that's gained traction amid fears of the impact of automation on global economies, a UBI would guarantee a living wage to every citizen, regardless of employment status.

Hawaii has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country at 2.9 percent, but many of the state's jobs are in low-paying industries like agriculture and hospitality. By some estimates, one in six Hawaiians live below the poverty line.

Making matters worse, agriculture and service sector jobs are primed to be replaced by robots.

In Japan, for instance, firms like Spread are already rolling out automated farming at scale, including one indoor grow operation that uses robots to produce and harvest 30,000 heads of lettuce per day with a minimum of human workers. In France, robots have started replacing farm workers at tasks like pruning vines.

The service sector hasn't been hit by widespread automation yet, in part because wages are so low across the industry. But that's likely to change.

According to McKinsey, nearly three-quarters of work done by fast food and restaurant workers will soon be replaced by robots. Last month, former McDonald's USA CEO Ed Rensi told Fox News that robots are the way forward for fast food, citing Amazon's automation efforts as a possible model for the industry.

Hotels are beginning to use robots like Savioke's Relay to do jobs typically performed by staff.

In general, automation has lawmakers around world worried. Last month, South Korea's ruling party announced it was considering ending corporate tax breaks for companies investing in automation technology -- a move that's been called the world's first "robot tax."

No other US states offer a basic universal income, and there's still no sense how a UBI would work in Hawaii even if political will proves strong enough to move forward. Representative Chris Lee (D), who sponsored the bill to take UBI under consideration, told Maui Now, "Everything is on the table."

He added: "As innovation occurs, and automation continues to take more jobs away from people, we need to find a mechanism that ensures that we as a society continue to benefit, and our economy is kept stable ... and this is what this is all about."


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