Bootstrapping Social Change With a Guaranteed Income

Photo by Markgraf.CC0/Public Domain license.

Photo by Markgraf.
CC0/Public Domain license.

A philosophical question – does everyone have a right to an income whether they work or not? Many Americans would answer “no.”

Here’s another question – would you favor ditching social programs like Social Security, welfare and food stamps? Many people would say yes to that. Probably even a few who aren’t Tea Party-worshipping Sarah Palin acolytes.

But here’s the irony: many economists say that what’s called a “basic income” or a “guaranteed income” may be more practical (and cheaper) than the system we have in place today. As political commentator Thom Hartmann notes, “If conservatives want to get rid of welfare, Social Security and food stamps, guarantee everyone a universal, unconditional basic minimum income.”

What exactly is a basic income? It’s a monthly amount that every citizen would receive, regardless of their income, without rules or controls (or bureaucracy). There’s another variation of this proposal floating around where those in the top tax bracket wouldn’t get a government check, a process often referred to as a “negative income tax.”

Victor Chudnovsky, a Google employee and local political activist, spoke on a universal basic income at the Ignite Seattle forum held at Town Hall last month (the title of his talk was “Bootstrapping Social Change.” Chudnovsky’s starting a Basic Income Action (BIA) Seattle Chapter, to lobby local politicians about making guaranteed income a reality. The group’s inaugural meeting takes place Oct. 10, 3 PM, at the Capitol Hill Library, 425 Harvard Ave. E.

“The system’s stacked against us,” says Chudnovsky. “We have to work to put food on the table, pay the mortgage, get ready for retirement, and be prepared for an emergency. In the 21st century our lives revolve around survival.

“A universal basic income addresses the problem of poverty. The best thing about it–it eliminates the welfare trap. You get to keep (guaranteed income) no matter how much or how little you make in wages.”

Some people trace the concept of a guaranteed income back to Sir Thomas More’s book Utopia published in 1516. Libertarian economist Milton Friedman wrote about a basic income in the 1960’s and Republicans like Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater looked it as a way of eliminating social programs that cost the government (now) trillions of dollars. Interestingly, many “no government” libertarians are keen to the idea.

“Liberals like universal income because it helps eliminate poverty,” Chudnovsky explains. “Conservatives like it because it leads to a smaller and simpler government. During the Nixon administration a universal basic income passed the House of Representatives.”

The knee-jerk reaction is that we’re paying people not to work. If someone’s getting free money why should they work? Of course, it depends on how much money they’re getting. If the average American received $10-15 thousand a year that probably wouldn’t be enough to “retire on.” Libertarian writer Charles Murray has proposed that all welfare programs be eliminated in favor of a $10,000 cash grant awarded to everyone over 21.

A controlled study took place in Uganda recently. One group received a grant or stipend from the government and another group didn’t receive anything. People receiving grants actually made more money (not counting the grant money) than the other group. They were able to invest money and even begin working towards starting their own business. A guaranteed income allows people to budget and not worry about where their next meal is coming from.

Then there are those who can’t work full-time because of illness or mental problems. Speaking of bureaucracy, some people won’t pursue a part-time job because they “don’t want to lose their benefits.” But contributing to society makes┬ápeople “feel good about themselves.” Some Real Change vendors here in Seattle for example, have struggled with surviving in a work environment but have attained a measure of satisfaction selling the homeless advocacy newspaper on the street.

Karl Widerquist, a professor at Georgetown University who’s written two books on basic income says “A guaranteed income means your income base doesn’t have to start at zero. If you don’t own anything your income base begins at zero. That’s what causes homelessness, poverty, and people taking low income jobs to survive.”

Some supporters foresee guaranteed income as the catalyst for a new Renaissance–a vigorous pursuit of scientific, artistic or intellectual activity–or an opportunity to be caretakers for their sick, loved one. Others think it may even be a necessity as we advance to a society more dominated by computers and machines that doesn’t provide enough actual work for the society.

But would people like Donald Trump or Lebron James receive a basic income? Would Tom Cruise receive a guaranteed stipend after putting the $20 million he made on his last movie in the bank? Well, yes, in a pure universal, basic income model, although in a fair world, those people would be paying a lot more in taxes to fund the system.

Plus, a universal system would eliminate much of the federal bureaucracy. Currently there are seventy-nine “means-tested” programs throughout the country. Florida started drug-testing recipients a few years back and later dropped the program because it was too costly and only a handful of people were caught using drugs (although, what smoking a joint has to do with collecting welfare is certainly a subject open for debate).

“A universal income also eliminates the stigma that someone’s a charity case,” Chudnovsky notes. People who collect welfare and/or food stamps are looked down upon in our society. But they wouldn’t be if everyone collected welfare.

Countries that have looked into some form of guaranteed income include the Netherlands, Mexico, Kenya, Canada and Liberia. In Switzerland, they’ve already gathered enough signatures to put guaranteed income on the ballot. But according to Hartmann, a universal income might be as American as apple pie.

“People shouldn’t need to work to survive. It goes against the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

For more information on a guaranteed income check out basicincomeaction.org.