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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 ClintonBudowsky: Closing message for Democrats Election Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach GOP mocks Clinton after minor vehicle collision outside Mendendez campaign event MORE and Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenElection Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Pollsters: White college-educated women to decide if Dems capture House Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight 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 RubioSaudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP Overnight Defense: Trump worries Saudi Arabia treated as 'guilty until proven innocent' | McConnell opens door to sanctions | Joint Chiefs chair to meet Saudi counterpart | Mattis says Trump backs him '100 percent' Dems can use subpoena power to reclaim the mantle of populism MORE, Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanSaudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP GOP group makes late play in Iowa seat once seen as lost Adelsons donated M in September to help GOP in midterms MORE, and even Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Arpaio files libel suit against New York Times IMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East 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 BrownOn The Money: Deficit hits six-year high of 9 billion | Yellen says Trump attacks threaten Fed | Affordable housing set for spotlight in 2020 race Lawmakers, Wall Street shrug off Trump's escalating Fed attacks The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Dem victories in `18 will not calm party turbulence 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.