Poverty: A guaranteed basic income for all?
“Want to get rid of poverty, lessen inequality, and provide financial stability in a world of precarious work?” asked Elizaveta Fouksman in Qz.com. Why not just give everyone enough money to live on? That’s the idea behind universal basic income—UBI for short. There’s no “bulky bureaucracy,” paperwork, or “onerous reporting requirements.” It gives people more choices than traditional anti-poverty programs, and ends up costing “far less than you think.” The “no-strings-attached payments” idea has been “gaining traction,” said John Byrne in the Chicago Tribune. Last week outgoing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a task force to study whether no-strings cash grants can work in the nation’s third-biggest city. One proposal for a pilot project would start with $500 a month for 1,000 families. The ultimate hope is a program that’s not just for the ultrapoor but also a way to cushion the loss of many higher-paying jobs to automation and offshoring.
UBI is simple, said Annie Lowrey in The New York Times—and for anti-poverty programs, simple is good. Everybody can understand Social Security. Or the earned income tax credit: “You work, you’re poor, you pay your taxes, you get it.” We should be making more government programs like that. Today’s welfare and food-stamp programs are stingy, wildly inefficient bureaucratic monsters that help far too few people. A national UBI would guarantee security for the middle class, who’ve been squeezed and “Uberized.” In a society as affluent as ours, “everyone deserves a guarantee of financial security, and we’re better off trusting each citizen to make the best decision for herself.”
Here we go again, said Felix Salmon in Slate.com. Universal basic income is not the advertised simple solution to complex problems. It’s actually an “inefficient way of giving poor people money.” The key problem is “universal.” Pilot programs have started with the poor, but a true UBI makes no distinctions: Money goes to the extremely poor, and also to the quite well off. That requires creating a huge program to distribute money, then new taxes to get some of it back—so ultimately, “a mere 10 percent would go to the 10 percent who need it most.” And even for those who really need the money, said Thomas Lifson in AmericanThinker.com, the awkward truth is “free stuff just makes people prefer more leisure once their basic needs are taken care of.” It certainly won’t encourage recipients to find work. Then there’s the matter of cost. Just paying Chicago’s debts and pension obligations “requires substantial, continuous increases in taxation.” Residents of this heavily taxed city hardly want to fork out more. ■