Friday, May 24, 2013

Left Side of the Aisle #109 - Part 8

A solution to poverty: a guaranteed income

Long-term unemployment is the worst ever and getting worse. If you're an older worker who has been unemployed for six months, you might as well give up the idea of finding work. Poverty is rising: 13.2% in 2008, 14.3% in 2009, 15.1% in 2010, over 16% - including nearly 20% of children - in 2012. Ultimately, poverty and hunger seem intractable; we seem incapable of getting the poverty rate below 11%.

Here's an idea to deal with that whose time has come.


MSNBC host Chris Hayes responded to a question from fellow host Melissa Harris-Perry about how we can combat poverty with a sign that read "Just give people money. It actually is that simple."

And yes, it actually is. The idea goes by various names, guaranteed minimum income, guaranteed annual income, universal basic income, but the "guaranteed income" part is the constant. If the problem is that people don't have enough money, then give them money, enough money to keep them out of poverty.

The fact that at first blush the idea seems impossibly radical or even, well, a little weird is a reflection of how far our political debate has fallen. This is a not a new idea; it was widely discussed in the 1960s. In fact, although this is rarely remembered now, in 1970 Richard Nixon proposed a type of guaranteed income for families with children, that he called the Family Assistance Program. It actually passed the House of Representatives. It was limited in that it only applied to families with children and the benefits were not enough to support a family, providing the equivalent of about $15,200 in cash and benefits in 2013 dollars for a family of four with no other income - but it was guaranteed and it did promise a floor below which no family would ever sink.

The plan died in the Senate when Nixon, attempting to placate the right, kept proposing stricter and stricter work requirements as part of the plan, costing support among liberals - sound familiar?

Even after that failure, the idea did not fade away immediately. In 1972, George McGovern proposed as part of his presidential campaign what he called a "demogrant" but became known as the "McGoverngrant." He proposed giving a grant of cash to each individual, making it a true universal guaranteed income not tied to family status. Unfortunately he presented it as a concept rather than an actual program and was never able to put a budget figure on it, which lead to it being mercilessly mocked.

And so here we are, 40 years later, coming back around to the same ideas: If poverty is the problem, money is the answer.

Now, it's not the complete answer, because what it does is to enable people to enter the marketplace to buy the things they need, to not go cold or hungry. It's building that "floor under everyone's needs" that's I describe as a basic part of my political philosophy. But it's not a complete answer because there are some things that are or at least should be part of what I call The Commons, that area of joint right and mutual obligation that should by all that is just lie outside the reach of The Market (pbui): areas like basic human physical needs, like food, like health care, as well as areas of basic human, if you will, psychic needs, like open spaces and the arts. While a guaranteed income, while a certain amount of money, can improve access to areas such as these, it should not be required for it. There should not be a minimum amount of money you need in order to have access to adequate nutrition and health care, to open spaces and the arts.

I'm going to cut myself off here and get back to the basic idea: Can it work? Can ending poverty really be as simple as giving people money?

Yes, it can. Yes, it is. The arguments against it are of two types, one financial, one, well, I'll get to that.

The financial arguments are "Where will the money come from" and "It will cost too much." For the first argument, there are two sources: One, we just print it. Yes, that can lead to inflation, but that just isn't a problem we have now.

The other place where some of the money can and should come is from the rich, whose share of our national income has been rising pretty much consistently for the past more than 40 years. Our work, our productivity increases, over the past decades have been going mostly into making them richer and it's past time we took some of that back.

As for "it will cost too much," those making that claim seem mostly to just multiply the amount per person times the number of people. Which is a terribly flawed method both because it doesn't account for what monies will not be spent in support programs as a result of a guaranteed basic income and because it doesn't allow for the fact that such a guaranteed income would increase family income across the board, so families' federal income taxes would also increase, meaning that a significant portion of what went out would wind up coming back in.

But still, is there a net cost? Is there a net increase in federal spending? Maybe. I don't know. And I don't care. A program that would end poverty, that would increase bargaining power for workers, that would put an end to state officials determining whether or not a single mother “deserves” help, that would put an end to the drug tests and the other humiliating demands, that by its nature recognizes the value of cooperative, non-labor activities, that is a program with a price surely worth paying.

But that brings up the other objection, one that comes exclusively from the right. It's the harder one to overcome because it's not built either on economic logic or even self-interest, something that has lead some right wingers to embrace the concept of a guaranteed income because it also means smaller government. No, this objection is cultural. It's classism: contempt for the poor.

It's the notion that if you provide poor people with the means to live above poverty, to not be hungry or cold, to not have their children be hungry or cold, they will just lie back and live off other people's work. It was reflected in that long-stale bumper sticker that said "Work harder. People on welfare are depending on you." It was reflected in the statement of my former mother-in-law that people on welfare "are laughing at us." It's the idea that "they" are not like "us." That "they" just "don't want to work." That "they" are lazy, indolent, loafers.

Oh, no, if we were in that position, we wouldn't just sit around. We'd strive for more, for better. We'd work hard to improve ourselves. Not like "them." We're not like "them."

It's bigotry, economic class bigotry, a bigotry that is often founded in racism but extends beyond it.

I admit I don't know how to overcome this, especially given the right wing's failures at reification, at being able to make an emotional connection with those not part of their circle. I guess we just have to keep on keepin' on. The truth is, I don't know what else to do.


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