How a tax-funded UBI can improve the lives of Indigenous Americans

Indigenous People’s Day is a time to celebrate and honor Indigenous Americans, while also recognizing the history of discrimination, oppression, and genocide they have faced since Europeans arrived in the Americas more than 500 years ago.

For centuries, American public policy has treated Indigenous Americans as second class citizens—enforcing migration, barring citizenship, and refusing to give them the fundamental rights granted to them by the Constitution. All of this produced large economic disparities that continue to this day. Indigenous Americans are 35 percent more likely to be in poverty than non-Indigenous Americans, and their median income is a third lower. While public policy has historically been used to marginalize Indigenous Americans, it can also be used as a tool to build them up. In this paper, I examine how a tax-funded Universal Basic Income (UBI) would impact Indigenous Americans.


To conduct the simulation I used data from the Census Bureau’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), which reports on data from 2019. For each simulation, a UBI is given to every American of all ages and funded by a flat tax on Adjusted Gross Income (AGI). AGI includes labor and capital income, and subtracts specific deductions like half of the self-employment taxes and contributions to certain retirement accounts. Unlike taxable income, AGI does not account for most itemized deductions or the standard deduction. I assume no labor supply responses to the new taxes or income.

For each UBI amount ranging from $0 per month to $1,000 per month, I calculated the necessary tax rates (below; each $100 per month requires a 3.3 percent tax on AGI), and change in poverty rates and income distributions for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Americans after taxes and the UBI.


The simulation shows that a tax-funded UBI has the potential to drastically reduce the poverty rate of Indigenous Americans. A UBI of $100 per month would drop Indigenous poverty below the current non-Indigenous poverty rate. At $250 per month Indigenous poverty rates fall by more than half. A larger UBI of $1,000 per month would drive Indigenous poverty to less than one percent.

Beyond just reducing the overall poverty rate a UBI could shrink or eliminate the poverty gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Americans. At all rates of $250 per month or higher, the gap closes within one percentage point. At all rates of $600 per month or higher, Indigenous poverty is lower than non-Indigenous poverty.

A UBI funded by a flat tax would not just benefit those currently living in poverty; our simulation finds that 83 percent of Indigenous Americans would be better off under the program, regardless of the amount.

Further, a UBI could reduce both the median and mean income gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Americans. A $500 per month UBI shrinks the gap in both median and mean resources by about a third.


Disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Americans are not limited to income: inequities persist in education, health outcomes, incarceration rates, and life expectancy. However, evidence suggests that cash transfers could help close these gaps as well. One study followed a group of Cherokee Indian families that received unconditional cash transfers of approximately $4,000 annually as part of a profit sharing agreement from a local casino. When recipients of the dividend were compared to residents nearby that did not receive it, researchers found that an additional $4,000 per year for the poorest households increased educational attainment of children by one year by age 21, and reduced the chance of committing a minor crime by 22 percent for 16 and 17 year olds. They also documented a decline in teenage pregnancy and substance abuse. Other studies found cash transfers reduce child obesity, improve health outcomes, and increase life expectancy.

In short, UBI is a policy tool that has already been successfully trialed in Indigenous communities, and which has the potential to radically change the life of the average Indigenous American for the better.