Universal basic income could lower poverty

By Jillian Correira


In a Jan. 2014 report, the Center for American Progress found that 86 percent of Americans think the government should use its resources to fight poverty, and 7 out of 10 Americans support the goal of reducing poverty by 50 percent over the next 10 years.

With numbers like those, it’s safe to say that poverty in the United States is universally accepted as one of the most urgent issues facing Americans today. And a universally accepted problem requires a universal solution: universal basic income.

A universal basic income requires very little. It simply means that each month, the government would send every American between ages 21 and 65 a check in the mail just for being alive. That’s it. The individual’s presence in American society gives worth to the country both economically and socially, and a universal basic income proves that value. But in actuality, it would do many more important things.

First, it’s important to reiterate that a check would be sent to each and every American, rich or poor, working or non-working. Second, the universal basic income movement has already been sweeping through Europe: The initiative will be put before Swiss voters in an upcoming election, so this idea is not new.

Providing a basic income would not only reduce poverty, but it would also provide Americans with a stable standard of living. If a citizen is out of work, they’ll still be able to support themselves while looking for employment. And sure, this might incentivize some to leave the work force for good. However, a minimum basic income would provide just enough to live on and not enough for most to live the way they’d like. So a universal basic income program would be implemented to help end poverty while preventing the creation of a nation of non-workers.

And the number of people who could decide not to work is insignificant in comparison to the benefits given to the majority who would continue. Those receiving a steady—and maybe increasing—paycheck wouldn’t have to worry about losing their UBI check. Having another source of income as a cushion allows workers more wage-bargaining power and a greater ability to demand better working conditions.

Additionally, unlike with welfare, housing vouchers and food stamps, how these federal dollars are spent is completely up to the recipient; they are not federally controlled. This means the money becomes more valuable to the purchasing-powerful recipient and the economy as a whole.

Maybe the strongest argument in favor of a basic income is the stagnation of wages and high unemployment rate in the United States. People are struggling to find jobs, and many of those who are employed are finding that the market isn’t providing them with a proper standard of living. A universal basic income would help alleviate the burden on the working poor as well as low-income families.

The idea of a universal basic income attracts appeal from the left and right. The left likes the idea because it works toward an egalitarian society by reducing inequality and eliminating poverty. The right likes the idea because a high enough basic income would eliminate the need for government benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and unemployment insurance.

Obviously, the cost for implementing a basic income would be tremendous. Providing just the 179 million working-age Americans in 2012 with a basic income that is equivalent to the poverty line would add up to over $2 trillion. But eliminating government benefits—which add up to approximately $750 billion, or $1 trillion after factoring in state programs—would provide some of the money necessary to pay for it. Automatic taxes on the basic income would provide revenue as well.

But, the government doesn’t have to go as far as providing an income equivalent to the poverty line. Matt Bruenig, a blogger for Demos.org, used Census data to calculate that a $2,920 annual check to every American (not just working-age) would cut official poverty in half and cost significantly less—about $907 billion in 2012.

There are different ways to implement a universal basic income. But the point is, though it might be costly and require some planning, it’s a realistic program. It might sound new, unorthodox or over simplistic, but that doesn’t qualify it for critical dismissal. And because it draws praise from the left and right, it might end up being easier agreed upon than other already-implemented nationwide programs like Obamacare. It is possible to fix poverty in this country and it really could be as easy as mailing everyone a check.

Jillian Correira is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]