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Byrd: Guarantee income, eliminate poverty

BY MATTHEW BYRD | NOVEMBER 14, 2013 5:00 AM

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Almost 16 percent of the population — 46.5 million Americans — live in poverty. Clearly it is not an optimal situation to allow wide swathes of the population to live in substandard economic conditions. So what do we, as a nation, do about it?

Well, we could just throw a bunch of money at poor people and make the problem go away.

Really.

What I’m proposing is known as a “Guaranteed Universal Basic Income,” a system in which the government provides a certain amount of money to all citizens once a month, no questions asked. Think of it as Social Security for all.

On a cold policy level, this solution makes perfect sense. If people are struggling because they don’t have enough money to pay for essential items such as food, water, housing etc., then just provide them the money to do so. It’s really not all that complicated when you think about it.

I mean, just look at the success Social Security, the limited little brother of a guaranteed income, has had. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Social Security has virtually eliminated poverty among the nation’s elderly. Why in our right minds would we not expand a program that has shown an amazing ability to reduce poverty rates to the nation as a whole?

Calculations have shown that a guaranteed income for the whole country would be massively successful in its antipoverty goals. A report by the think tank Demos has shown that by giving every  American $3,000 per year, we could cut the poverty rate in half. A Business Insider column estimated that a $6,000 annual stipend could eliminate poverty altogether. Just like that.

A guaranteed also solves the ever-present problem of how high or low the minimum wage should be, specifically by eliminating the need for it. As Slate’s Matt Yglesias has argued, if everybody is getting $3,000 a year, employers will obviously be forced to offer higher wages. But there could also be, as Ygelsias puts it, other “appealing factors” for workers. To attract employees, employers would have to offer other incentives besides wages such as tough job-safety standards or simple perks such as cleaner water coolers. Workers provided with economic security through a guaranteed income wouldn’t have to worry about losing their livelihoods because they told their boss they didn’t want to be in a position to fall into a vat of chemicals.

Also, a guaranteed allows for the elimination of several government programs that would be made redundant by the implementation of a basic income, programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Nutrituion Assistance Program, Earned Income Tax Credit, and other antipoverty programs that simply would no longer be needed. Why would you need food stamps if you had enough money to pay for food?

As for the question of how all this is paid for, that also turns out to be shockingly simple. As economist Matt Brueing has pointed out, the elimination of the small-scale poverty-reduction programs mentioned above, tax increases on wealthy Americans, and cuts from the spoiled Defense Department could all help raise enough revenue for a program which would really only cost around 5 percent of this country’s GDP.

The U.S. government has (or at least, it’s supposed to) a social contract with the American people in order to ensure that every American is as prosperous as possible. Not embarking on a relatively simple program that has the potential to be wildly successful in achieving that goal is a breach of the social contract. And really, it’s a national embarrassment that a country as rich as ours would allow so many of our fellow citizens to wallow in totally preventable poverty.


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