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
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Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP rushes to cut ties to Moore Papadopoulos was in regular contact with Stephen Miller, helped edit Trump speech: report Bannon jokes Clinton got her ‘ass kicked’ in 2016 election MORE and Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenThe Hill's 12:30 Report Pence talks regularly to Biden, Cheney: report Biden moving toward 2020 presidential run: report 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.”

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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 RubioOvernight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny Cornyn: Senate GOP tax plan to be released Thursday This week: GOP seeks to advance tax overhaul MORE, Paul RyanPaul RyanGOP rep: Virginia defeat 'a referendum' on Trump administration After Texas shooting, lawmakers question whether military has systemic reporting problem Pence: Praying 'takes nothing away' from trying to figure out causes behind mass shooting MORE, and even Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates 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 BrownTrump tells Senate Dems that 'rich people get hurt' in GOP tax plan Senate panel approves North Korea banking sanctions Trump names Powell as chairman of Federal Reserve 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.