Paying People for Being Alive

From SWITZERLAND’S PROPOSAL TO PAY PEOPLE FOR BEING ALIVE

… certain wonks on the libertarian right and liberal left have come to a strange convergence around the idea — some prefer an unconditional “basic” income that would go out to everyone, no strings attached; others a means-tested “minimum” income to supplement the earnings of the poor up to a given level.

The case from the right is one of expediency and efficacy. Let’s say that Congress decided to provide a basic income through the tax code or by expanding the Social Security program. Such a system might work better and be fairer than the current patchwork of programs, including welfare, food stamps and housing vouchers. A single father with two jobs and two children would no longer have to worry about the hassle of visiting a bunch of offices to receive benefits. And giving him a single lump sum might help him use his federal dollars better. Housing vouchers have to be spent on housing, food stamps on food. Those dollars would be more valuable — both to the recipient and the economy at large — if they were fungible.

Even better, conservatives think, such a program could significantly reduce the size of our federal bureaucracy. It could take the place of welfare, food stamps, housing vouchers and hundreds of other programs, all at once: Hello, basic income; goodbye, H.U.D. Charles Murray of the conservative American Enterprise Institute has proposed a minimum income for just that reason — feed the poor, and starve the beast. “Give the money to the people,” Murray wrote in his book “In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State.” He suggested guaranteeing $10,000 a year to anyone meeting the following conditions: be American, be over 21, stay out of jail and — as he once quipped — “have a pulse.”

The left is more concerned with the power of a minimum or basic income as an anti-poverty and pro-mobility tool. There happens to be some hard evidence to bolster the policy’s case. In the mid-1970s, the tiny Canadian town of Dauphin ( the “garden capital of Manitoba” ) acted as guinea pig for a grand experiment in social policy called “Mincome.” For a short period of time, all the residents of the town received a guaranteed minimum income. About 1,000 poor families got monthly checks to supplement their earnings.

Evelyn Forget, a health economist at the University of Manitoba, has done some of the best research on the results. Some of her findings were obvious: Poverty disappeared. But others were more surprising: High-school completion rates went up; hospitalization rates went down. “If you have a social program like this, community values themselves start to change,” Forget said.

There are strong arguments against minimum or basic incomes, too. Cost is one. Creating a massive disincentive to work is another. But some experts said the effect might be smaller than you would think. A basic income might be enough to live on, but not enough to live very well on. Such a program would be designed to end poverty without creating a nation of layabouts. The Mincome experiment offers some backup for that argument, too.“For a lot of economists, the issue was that you would disincentivize work,” said Wayne Simpson, a Canadian economist who has studied Mincome. “The evidence showed that it was not nearly as bad as some of the literature had suggested.”

There’s a deeper, scarier reason that arguments for guaranteed incomes have resurfaced of late. Wages are stagnant, unemployment is high and tens of millions of families are struggling in Europe and here at home. Despite record corporate earnings and skyrocketing fortunes for the college-educated and already well-off, the job market is simply not rewarding many fully employed workers with a decent way of life. Millions of households have had no real increase in earnings since the late 1980s.

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