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National Issues

Guaranteed income: A ‘Utopian’ idea or smart public policy?

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the concept of a guaranteed minimum income. The basic idea consists of a system of direct payment to all citizens, in an amount sufficient enough to cover basic human needs like food and shelter, presumably tied to inflation, poverty levels or some other indicator.

While the idea sounds positively socialistic and utopian, its proponents have come from both left and right. Even libertarians — who are fundamentally opposed to government handouts — have argued their case for guaranteed income.

This is not a new idea, either. Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice, written in the late 18th century, argued for something of the sort. And economist Milton Friedman decades ago proposed something similar, although he called it a “negative income tax.”

Again, it might be surprising that some of the most enthusiastic supporters of this idea have been Libertarians, but really, it makes sense in that a single, direct payment to citizens could replace a costly, complicated and vastly inefficient welfare bureaucracy. Additionally, they argue, a direct payment would give citizens the ability to make dignified, individual, free market choices.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about this idea, however. Some on the left have called it “a dangerous reform (pdf),”and fear it would be “counter productive for the working class by leading to an across-the-board decrease in wages.” Similarly, many on the right worry that having a guaranteed income will disincentivize work.

And while these are reasonable concerns, the limited evidence (limited because it’s still a new idea with a limited history of implementation) suggests that people who receive these benefits are not likely to stop working or significantly reduce the time they work (the exceptions seem to be new mothers and teenagers).

At the very least, providing a minimum standard of living would ensure that people are not suffering unnecessarily, that they have the basic needs that a humane society should consider basic human rights: food, shelter, clean water and health care.

A guaranteed minimum income would not magically solve all of society’s ills. And it would require significant changes to our economy and our political values.

For one, taxes would have to be raised somewhat on wealthier individuals and on corporations. This would be an expensive program, but it could well replace much of the bureaucratic, messy, wasteful and undignified welfare system that (barely) exists today.

And, crucially, guaranteed income would help society transition into an inevitable and disruptive age of worker displacement and automation. As technology continues to make our lives easier, it also threatens to usher in a long period of restructuring, massive layoffs and social unrest. By providing citizens with a minimum income, the government could provide a degree of stability, dignity and opportunity, as people could take time to learn new skills or serve their communities — to find a purpose in a world in transition and to become involved citizens who feel they have a stake in their government and their society.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump are talking about this, but perhaps we should be pushing them to do so. At a time when campaigns reflect deep divisions and social anxieties, perhaps the hope that every citizen in our country would be guaranteed a minimum standard of living might help bring us closer together and help us see our neighbors as fellow citizens rather than as political and economic rivals.

Perhaps that’s wishful thinking. But soon enough, we must tackle our growing inequality and our changing economy. The sooner we can think of humane solutions, the more likely we are to transition with as limited suffering as possible.

Eladio Bobadilla, from Durham, N.C., is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Duke’s history department.


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