Towards a More Progressive Realization of 2nd Generation Rights: Universal Basic Income in Latin America

By Meredith Veit

Inequality and Poverty in Latin America

The seemingly inexorable growth of the income inequality gap is worrying economists, politicians, academia and activists alike, as its consequences place the majority in a pitfall of financial insecurity. Latin America continues to be the most unequal region of the world. The effects of stark income inequality are tangibly felt through the prevalence of poverty, which is strongly tied to poor public health, food insecurity, unfavorable living conditions, increased crime, and lack of a formal education.

In the era of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, eradicating poverty continues to be a keystone for the enjoyment of all other human rights.  In 2014, 168 million people in Latin America (28.5% of the regional population) were living in poverty which increased to 186 million in 2016 (30.7%).[1] Implementing a basic income system in Latin America would better ensure that peoples’ second generation rights are being realized, reduce otherwise climbing poverty rates, and thus certify the recognition of the essential value of the human person.

Latin America and Universal Basic Income (UBI)

The concept of UBI would materialize in the form of periodic cash transfers to all citizens, irrespective of age, gender, income or origin, in order to safeguard access to basic needs such as food and shelter.

UBI is promoted by Nobel Prize winning economists, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and even tech pioneers. What deserves greater attention, however, is the fact that these changes are affecting all “world” tenses—both developed and developing. Considering many multinational companies outsource their labor, workers in Mexico are undoubtedly impacted by machine-automation in the United States, for example. Versions of UBI could, theoretically, be universally beneficial, regardless of a country’s GDP and contrary to the common misconception that UBI only works for wealthy nations.  

While there is a large array of social protection programs in Latin America they are mostly considered to be budget burdens and not long-term solutions to the root cause of poverty.  

Brazil was actually the first country in the world to pass a law recognizing the right to basic income in 2004. The Lei de Renda Básica de Cidadania establishes a minimum living wage for all Brazilian citizens. However, aside from a small-scale, crowdfunded pilot program in the town of Quatinga Velho ran by an NGO called ReCivitas, the law has not come to fruition. Similarly, a 2017 “guaranteed basic income” clause for Mexico City was eliminated by conservative opposition.

Human Rights Implications of UBI in Latin America

As previously mentioned UBI in Latin America is supported by academia and economists because it is obvious that without long-term social protection reform, poverty will continue to rot what would otherwise be fruitful economic growth. But more importantly, UBI humanizes an individual’s existence and inherent value and recognizes a person’s worth beyond their contribution to GDP.

The “basic needs approach” to development emerged in the 1970s as a means to ensure that everyone had access to the minimal goods and services needed to be free from want. Every Latin American country has ratified the International Covenant for Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and implementing a UBI would unarguably serve as an effective means for States to fulfil their positive obligations.  

ICESCR Article 6 – The Right to Work

UBI allows for a broader definition of “work,” taking into consideration all other laborious acts which wouldn’t necessarily offer payment—such as volunteering, caring for children or the elderly, housework, creative work—granting economic freedom to those that contribute to society in non-formal ways. In Latin America this is particularly crucial because of the immensity of the informal workforce. Women and youth are statistically more involved in informal labor, meaning they are not qualified for current safety nets such as unemployment benefits or health insurance, making them more dependent. UBI would ensure that all workers are covered and free to choose a productive way of life that may not fall within the traditional classification of a wage-earning job. 

ICESCR Article 10 – Protecting Family Life 

Maternity leave is protected under Article 10(2), granting mothers “paid leave or leave with adequate social security benefits.” Though all Latin American States offer 14-week minimum maternity leave, UBI would facilitate in ensuring that unemployed or single women are not disadvantaged by the economic burden of having a child.

Article 10(3) also surmises that children should be “protected from economic and social exploitation.” Over 10.5 million children aged 5-17 are engaged in child labor in Latin America and the Caribbean.[2] UBI would ensure that every individual, including children, would receive an income from the State, likely curbing child labor.

ICESCR Article 11 – The Right to an Adequate Standard of Living

UBI, would provide a more dependable foundation to ensure that everyone has adequate food, clothing and housing. It creates immediate economic accessibility to food, directly eliminating half the battle of fighting hunger. Additionally, for those whose salaries are just enough to pay for the expenses of an adequate standard of living, UBI could break the unremitting cycle and could create healthier Latin American lower and middle classes.

Tying together Article 6 with Article 11, UBI would curtail economic migration, allowing people the opportunity to have an adequate standard of living and financial freedom within their home countries. This is particularly relevant as from 2000-2017, Latin America experienced the second largest outpouring of migrants to other parts of the world with 32 million Latin Americans living abroad.

ICESCR Article 12 – The Right to Physical and Mental Health

The right to physical and mental health is interwoven with the above rights. Physical health is only achievable via proper nutrition and accessibility to the healthcare system. This is not to argue, however, that UBI could replace universal healthcare, which is already present in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and more. UBI could act as a necessary income supplement in order to subsidize any needed medicine, and studies have shown it can contribute to a decrease in hospitalization.[3]  

ICESCR Article 13 – The Right to Education

The right to education is essential for personal growth, yet young Latin Americans from lower socio-economic classes are six times more likely to drop out of school to find work. UBI would allow for children to stay in school and adults, too, could further their studies as a means of enhancing their competitiveness in the job market.


Providing UBI would positively impact many aspects of a more idyllic life where all human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. It would not only help alleviate poverty and better secure the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, but also function as a means to “improve the enjoyment of civil and political rights”.[4]

Though there are many challenges that inhibit an easy implementation of UBI from a human rights perspective there is no counter-argument that carries enough weight to deny its encouraging potential for better appreciating human dignity. The creation of a UBI in Latin America is not a matter of short-term economic growth but rather long-term human investment. Latin American countries have a history of spearheading the push for economic social and cultural rights as pivotal for prosperity and should continue to push for progress as there is a lot to lose. 247 million impoverished people are 247 million too many.

Meredith has worked for the past few years as a multimedia journalist and a researcher mostly in Africa and the Americas. She holds a BA in Communication & Public Culture from George Washington University and interned for Vice President Joe Biden at the White House in 2015. She is most interested in issues related to press freedom, foster care and adoption reform and indigenous persons’ rights. 

[1] ECLAC 2017

[2] United States Department of Labor 2017

[3] Berger 2015

[4] Alston 2014