Seeding policy: Viral cash and the diverse trajectories of basic income in the United States

During the COVID-19 pandemic, cities in the United States of America developed more that 100 basic income pilots. This article examines the heretofore hidden impact of the pandemic on the future extension of basic income programmes at the sub-national level. While the super-majoritarian requirements of United States federal policy making keep the possibility of national-level basic income remote, several features of basic income, including unconditional cash transfers and broad programme eligibility, have emerged as viable tools in state and local policy. Drawing on an inventory of basic income pilots and interviews with policy entrepreneurs, this article defines and then examines the phenomenon of “viral cash” and assesses the probability that the wave of basic income pilots will continue to grow after the pandemic. Conventional approaches to evaluating the diffusion of policies across jurisdictions focus squarely on policy. Appraising viral cash’s future requires a shift to following the advocacy networks who move, adapt and combine basic income with other programmes.