October 28, 2022
Last week, an article in the Washington Post left me wondering if we will ever learn and if our nation really cares about the lives of all of us who live here. This is a question that I have been struggling with and one I have been writing about. In this election season, it has me thinking of the harmful disconnect between reality and politicians/policymakers.
The Post’s Sunday Magazine featured a long and comprehensive article by Megan Greenwell, “Universal Basic Income Has Been Tested Repeatedly. It Works. Will America Ever Embrace It?” With a broad historical lens, it told her readers something that I have been writing about for almost a decade: Helping people escape from the harms of poverty may simply require nothing more than providing people with enough money to ensure they can afford their household’s basic needs.
Ms. Greenwell reminded us that it would not have been out of place for Lin-Manuel Miranda to have added a song about guaranteed income to his score of “Hamilton.” “For as long as America has had a poverty problem — which is to say, for its entire history — a small group of dreamers has proposed guaranteed income as a solution. The idea dates to the year the country was founded: Thomas Paine proposed a type of basic income in his 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense.” In the mid-20th century, it gained traction among Black American thinkers. In 1966, the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program demanded “employment or a guaranteed income” for everyone. A year later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his last book — “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” — that government aid programs all have a “common failing: they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else. I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
We could see as long ago as 1935, when Social Security began, that the guaranteed cash payments it provided reduced poverty rates. According to a recent analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Social Security benefits play a vital role in reducing poverty in every state, and they lift more people above the poverty line than any other program in the United States. Without Social Security, 22.5 million more adults and children would be poor, according to an analysis using the March 2021 Current Population Survey. Although most of those whom Social Security keeps out of poverty are aged 65 or older, 6.4 million are under age 65, including almost 1 million children…Social Security is particularly important for older women and people of color, who have fewer retirement resources outside of Social Security. Depending on their design, reductions in Social Security benefits could significantly increase poverty, particularly among older adults.
Earlier this year when I wrote that the “The Sad State of Politics Leaves Our Children Behind” we knew that cash payments help reduce poverty among children. ”CNBC reported barely one month after the first checks reached homes “The first installment of the child tax credit lifted 3 million kids out of poverty in July, according to a Columbia University study. That reduction represented a 25% cut in the monthly child poverty rate to 11.9% from 15.8%, according to the analysis…”
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reached the same conclusion when it looked at the many “experimental” cash payment programs that philanthropists were funding in cities across the nation. “Giving Cash Directly to People in Need Is a Growing Trend, as Evidence Shows It Works.” In the Chronicle’s recap, we could learn that research by Benjamin Soskis of the Urban Institute showed that there were intangible benefits of giving cash that were found beyond its sheer economic impact. His research “found two key advantages of giving cash over longstanding charity approaches: The money reached people fast, which was especially important in the Covid pandemic, and it had no strings attached so it provided flexibility. ‘One lesson you could very clearly take away is that cash was a very powerful tool in helping people in desperate need and that it also has a powerful message about trusting those that you want to help.’”
Greenwell cited global data telling us the same story, in “a 2019 working paper, Nobel Prize-winning development economist Abhijit Banerjee and two co-authors concluded that the distribution of unconditional cash in low-income countries had positive effects on “income, assets, savings, borrowing, total expenditure, food expenditure, dietary diversity, school attendance, test scores, cognitive development, use of health facilities, labor force participation, child labor migration, domestic violence, women’s empowerment, marriage, fertility, and use of contraception, among others.”
Earlier this year I cited similar findings from research on the Expanded Child Tax Credit (ECTC). “The program did not encourage people to leave their jobs or stop trying to find work. Actually, over the last six months of 2021, while the CTC checks were being received, “ adults in families with children, employment continued to increase even after the first CTC payment in July 2021. Labor force participation among adults in families with children in December 2021 was higher than its pre-CTC value, in contrast to the labor force participation rate of adults in childless families….We conclude that real-world data on employment during the CTC expansion do not support claims that the elimination of the phase-in portion of the CTC discouraged work among parents in any meaningful way, much less that such effects are large enough to offset decreases in poverty and material hardship driven by the expansion’s increased generosity and inclusivity. Our results are, instead, consistent with other real-world analyses of the expansion’s effects, which show observed declines in child poverty (Parolin, Collyer, et al., 2021) and strongly reduced food insufficiency (Parolin, Ananat, et al., 2021). Our results suggest that the mechanism through which these reductions occurred is that the increase in income that was both intended and accomplished through the expansion, combined with a lack of unintended effects on parental work, led to improved well-being for families with children. “
But as I have continually lamented, the positive data makes not a whit of difference when it comes to making guaranteed income a core part of our social safety net. Or as Greenwell put it, “if empirical evidence ruled the world, guaranteed income would be available to every poor person in America, and many would no longer be poor. But empirical evidence does not rule the world.”
We know that guaranteed income does not encourage irresponsible behavior and that it actually improves people’s lives,
But guaranteed income seems forever to be another splinter issue, around which passion can be aroused and the debate can be focused on those who merit to live a good life. The poor are too often depicted as lazy and unwilling to work, as people who will just squander away any money they may be given on alcohol and drugs. The poor, despite all of the data to the contrary, are vilified as irresponsible and needing a stiff kick in the rear to motivate them to get a job and earn their way out of poverty. For too many politicians, it seems advantageous to depict the poor as being poor only because they do not or will not work hard enough.
Giving people a guaranteed income improves lives, but we will not do it. We choose to allow people to suffer because too many of them believe that giving them cash is actually hurting them and is unfair. We are as a nation comfortable with reading headlines like this from Block Club Chicago, “233,000 People Applied For 3,250 Spots In Cook County’s $500-A-Month Guaranteed Income Pilot Program.”
Is it really okay that 230,000 people are left out in the cold?
Juliana Bidadanure, director of Stanford University’s Basic Income Lab explained this quandary to the Washington Post, “It’s about how we view each other and when we think of each other as deserving of support and when we don’t, and what stands in the way,”
When will we ever learn?