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5 Reasons to Consider a No-Strings-Attached, Basic Income for All Americans

An idea whose time has finally come.

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What if you could receive a guaranteed basic yearly income with no strings attached? Didn’t matter how much money you made now, or in the future. Nobody would ask about your job status or how many kids you have. The check would arrive in the mailbox, no matter what. 

Sounds like a far-fetched idea, right? Wrong. All over the world, people are talking guaranteeing basic incomes for citizens as a viable policy.

Half of all Canadians want it. The Swiss have had a referendum on it. The American media is all over it: The New York Times’ Annie Lowrey considered basic income as an answer to an economy that leaves too many people behind, while Matt Bruenig and Elizabeth Stoker of the Atlantic wrote about it as a way to reduce poverty.

The idea is not new: In his final book, Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that guaranteeing people money without requiring them to do anything in exchange was a good way for Americans to share in prosperity. In the 1960s and early 1970s, many in the U.S. gave the idea serious consideration. Even Richard Nixon supported a version of it. But by 1980, the political tide shifted to the right and politicians moved their talking points to unfettered markets and individual gain from sharing the wealth and evening the playing field.  

Advocates say it’s an idea whose time has finally come. In a world of chronic job insecurity, stagnant wages, boom-and-bust cycles that wipe out ordinary people through no fault of their own, and shredded social safety nets, proponents warn that we have to come up with a way to make sure people can survive regardless of work status or economic conditions. Here are five reasons they give as to why a guaranteed basic income might just be the answer.

1. It would help fight poverty: America is the richest country in the world, yet widespread poverty continues to afflict us. Social Security has arguably been the most successful program for reducing poverty in American history, dramatically cutting poverty among the elderly and keeping tens of millions above the poverty threshold. Why not expand it to all?

Matt Bruenig calculated that by giving everybody a mere $3,000 a year, including children (who would receive the money through their parents), we could potentially cut poverty in half. The program would be simple: you get it no matter how much money you make, which would prevent poor people from having to worry about losing the benefit. With everybody in it together, you get a much larger base of political support (one of the reasons means-testing has always been a back-door way of killing Social Security— it reduces support).

In the 1970s, the small Canadian town of Dauphin ran an experiment through a social policy called “ Mincome.” Everybody in the town was allowed to get a minimum cash benefit during the duration of the program. Poverty was eliminated, because people living below the poverty line saw their income boosted through monthly checks. But the results were about more than an official line marking the poverty threshold. Mincome positively impacted the horrible conditions associated with the cycle of poverty. When people had a basic income, they were able to better care for their families, stay healthy and improve their education — all the things that help people stay out of poverty in the future.

2. It could be good for the economy: A basic guaranteed income has the potential to positively impact the economy in several ways, which is why economists from John Kenneth Galbraith to Milton Friedman have advocated it.