OPIOID SERIES:

Let’s not give up on a guaranteed basic income before we’ve tried

Let’s not give up on a guaranteed basic income before we’ve tried
© Getty

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPaltry wage gains, rising deficits two key tax reform concerns Trump pressed Sessions to fire FBI agents who sent anti-Trump texts: report DNC sues Russia, Trump campaign and WikiLeaks over alleged election interference MORE and Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenThe Hill's 12:30 Report Biden to decide on White House run at end of year Stormy Daniels’s 'View' is incorrect MORE have made universal basic income, a monthly check to ensure financial stability for all Americans, the political football of today. Clinton made headlines last week by declaring in her new book that her campaign looked seriously at the idea in 2015, and on Tuesday, Joe Biden gave a speech challenging the idea of a basic income on the grounds that it questions the inherent dignity of work.  

This debate goes back decades, and some of our most respected leaders have supported the idea of an income floor for all. Martin Luther King, Jr. made the case in the final month of his life. “The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands,” he wrote, “... and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Our leaders today are thinking far too narrowly about this issue. When people use the term basic income, many assume it is purely a response to the rise of automation. Some believe the starting point for a basic income must be $1,000 a month for every American. But a growing movement of policymakers, technologists, and political organizers is thinking more broadly and creatively about a basic income than leading politicians are — and we have concrete policies that could lay the foundation today for financial security for all tomorrow.

Even though we are living through a time of massive technological dislocation, that doesn’t mean that jobs are disappearing wholesale. The argument for a basic income is not premised on the rise of the robots — it is grounded in the reality that nearly half of Americans already can’t find $400 in case of an emergency and in the belief in the dignity and self-determination of the individual that King articulated. Unemployment is at historic lows, but work has become more contingent and unreliable over the past few decades as a result of automation, globalization, the concentration of monopoly power, and other trends.

We need an income floor to restore a sense of security to those whose wages haven’t kept up. If we want to combat exploding income inequality, we should build on the values that make a basic income inspiring and exciting to so many and use them to create an affordable income floor for working people.

Joe Biden believes in the dignity of work, but so do many who support a basic income. Studies in the U.S. and internationally have shown conclusively that modest amounts of cash do not cause people to reduce their work hours significantly, as a recent Roosevelt Institute report illustrated.

We already provide $70 billion of cash assistance — money with no strings attached — to working people in the form of refundable tax credits through the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Some families receive thousands of dollars a year. It is the most popular, successful, and proven anti-poverty program in America, with Republicans like Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioStudents gather outside White House after walkout to protest gun violence Overnight Energy: Senate confirms Bridenstine as NASA chief | Watchdog probes Pruitt’s use of security detail | Emails shine light on EPA science policy changes Senate confirms Trump’s pick to lead NASA MORE, Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanA warning to Ryan’s successor: The Speakership is no cakewalk Republicans divided over legislation protecting Mueller The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE, and even Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIG investigating Comey memos over classified information: report Overnight Defense: Congress poised for busy week on nominations, defense bill | Trump to deliver Naval Academy commencement speech | Trump administration appeals decision to block suspected combatant's transfer Top Pruitt aid requested backdate to resignation letter: report MORE supporting its expansion alongside virtually every leader on the left.

We can modernize and simplify this cash program to meet the fundamental goals of a basic income for all. A much larger benefit that provides modest amounts of income on a monthly basis to every working person — as much as $500 per month per household — could be transformative.

And Biden is thinking far too narrowly about what work is. In modernizing the EITC benefit, we also have an opportunity to acknowledge non-traditional kinds work that far too often go unrecognized. Tens of millions of Americans get up at dawn and work all day in demanding jobs in childcare, eldercare, and education, and are shut out from many government benefits, including the existing EITC. Their work matters and it has value.

It might be counterintuitive, but many of these are the jobs of the future, with millions of people already engaged in informal caregiving work for aging Baby Boomers. An income floor tied to work could adopt a modern, broad definition that truly serves Americans who need it most.

Hillary Clinton’s concern that the math wouldn’t add up is understandable, but shortsighted. At first blush, the costs are significant: Traditional basic income advocates argue for a policy that would cost over $2 trillion a year, a prohibitively expensive sum. But a smaller income floor of a few hundred dollars a month to Americans who live below the median income would cost a fraction of that amount. This kind of income floor would provide immediate relief to struggling families and demonstrate the impact of the policy, starting modestly just as Social Security and other transformative programs did in the beginning.

Still another affordable way to structure the policy would be as a negative income tax, which Richard Nixon and Milton Friedman once supported. It would supplement the income of everyone below the poverty line and bring them up to a minimal standard of living. Experts estimate it would cost $219 billion per year.  

That kind of revenue could be raised through a tax on high-earners, a carbon fee and rebate program, or even a financial transaction tax. There are no shortage of options for how to pay for the benefit — the question is whether we have the political will.

Several legislators are already thinking along these lines. Just last week, Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Senator Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOvernight Finance: Senate repeals auto-lending guidance, shattering precedent with vote | House passes IRS reform bills | Senate GOP fears tax cut sequel Dem Senator open to bid from the left in 2020 GOP Senate hopefuls race to catch up with Dems MORE (D-Ohio) introduced a bill called the GAIN Act that would create the largest expansion of the EITC in the nation's history, dramatically growing the number of working Americans who receive cash from the program. It would reduce the minimum qualifying age from 25 to 21 and increase the maximum credit by $2,500 a year for childless Americans and nearly $6,000 for the largest American families.

Tackling poverty and income inequality should start with the premise of financial security for all and respect for the ingenuity of Americans to find their own solutions with cash. For years now, our political debates have been full of important, but often incremental suggestions for how to restore the American dream. The movement for a basic income believes that cash can be the most effective way to provide income security to all Americans. An income floor created through a reimagined and modernized EITC would not only make sure work pays, it would make good on the ideal that if you work in America, you should not live in poverty.

This is the promise of a basic income — financial stability through cash — and it is affordable and respects the dignity of work.

Expanding the definition of work and structuring these policies creatively will bring them in line with American values in Scranton and in San Francisco. Let’s not give up before we have even tried.

Chris Hughes is co-chair of the Economic Security Project, a non-profit committed to exploring how a basic income could ensure economic security for all. He was a co-founder of Facebook.