The presidential candidates are talking, and talking, and talking, although they haven’t said anything about basic income. Not yet.
Americans are angry, and a major reason is income insecurity. We’re struggling with stagnant wages, student loan debts, and lack of opportunities, while jobs are outsourced or executed by robots and computers. Precarious times call for boldness and courage. But many candidates are offering mostly stale or hollow rhetoric, dividing and distracting us, further polarizing and paralyzing our political system, providing more reasons to be angry.
Basic income is bold, though here’s the irony: moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans supported similar ideas in the 1960s and early ’70s. Democrats called it “guaranteed income,” and Lyndon Johnson appointed a national commission that unanimously endorsed it; proponents also included Martin Luther King Jr., Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and George McGovern. Republicans preferred the term “negative income tax,” and the leading advocate was economist Milton Friedman. Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan passed the House of Representatives with two-thirds of the votes, and public opinion polls showed majority support, but the Senate Finance Committee blocked it.
Basic income is simple. Every adult American gets a monthly payment from government, independent of a job or other income, the same amount for everyone. It is a floor, more solid and stable than any safety net, providing money for food, clothes, shelter, and other basic necessities. It might be $800 or $1,000 or $1,400 a month. Cities and states can supplement it, and we’ll adjust the amount when necessary to prevent recessions and promote economic stability.
Basic income puts everyone on the field and in the game, able to participate in markets and politics, free to choose what’s best for ourselves and our families. Everyone will have money to stay in or go back to school, change jobs or careers, start businesses, choose to be full-time parents, save and invest for retirement. The funds will come from cutting government programs that become superfluous – welfare, corporate welfare, and so on, federal, state, and local – and from reforming the tax code to eliminate loopholes and deductions that benefit special interests.
The 2016 elections are an opportunity to highlight basic income. At all levels, because cities and states can enact programs without waiting for the federal government. Alaskans already have a small basic income, the Permanent Fund Dividend, and they love it.
Bold ideas require mass movements. The Progressive and Populist movements in the late 1800s were sparked by regular folks seeking economic security. In the 1930s, two huge groups campaigned for guaranteed income, and generated the political will to enact Social Security. Mass movements in the 1960s brought momentous breakthroughs in civil rights and women’s rights, leading recently to marriage equality. Today, Black Lives Matter is demanding long-overdue reforms in the criminal justice system, and we’re already seeing real gains.
Our movement for basic income has the power to unite poor and rich, women and men, old and young, urban and rural, black and brown and white, Americans of all backgrounds and identities. We have to make politicians listen to us. Then get them talking about basic income. Then force our elected representatives to take action.
Steven Shafarman is program director and a co-founder of Basic Income Action, and author of The Basic Income Imperative: for peace, justice, liberty, and personal dignity (forthcoming; interested publishers are invited to contact Steven at firstname.lastname@example.org).