Enter universal basic income. Also referred to as “guaranteed income” or the “basic income guarantee,” the concept is simple: in order to ensure that all citizens can afford to meet their basic needs, the government provides every citizen with a set amount of money on a regular basis, enough to lift them above the poverty line. This cash income would be universal and unconditional, meaning that every citizen would receive it no matter what — no work requirements, no means-testing and no restrictions on how the money is used.
The idea sounds radical today, but is by no means new — and it has been embraced by some on the right as well as the left. Libertarian economist F.A. Hayek advocated “a certain minimum income for everyone … a sort of floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself,” and the economist Milton Friedman favored a version called the “negative income tax.” In 1969, President Richard Nixon attempted to pass a proposal called “the family assistance plan,” which would replace complicated welfare programs with direct cash payments. Although the plan failed in the Senate, it resurfaced in 1972 when Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern proposed the “demogrant” — a $1,000 check given to every citizen. More recently, the political scientist Charles Murray has advocated for a guaranteed income of $10,000 per person, coupled with a repeal of all other welfare transfer systems, including Social Security, food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid.
Advocates say that a basic income would give workers more bargaining power, with the resources to leave bad jobs without fear and the flexibility to spend more time on study, family care or other pursuits. Detractors worry about the negative impact on work effort and the costs of paying for a basic income scheme. In a country famous for its lionization of hard work and bootstraps-enabled success, government assistance is often seen as a necessary evil — available as a last resort, dispensed through a complicated system and relied upon for as short a time as possible.
Outside the United States, basic income is gaining some traction. In 2016, Switzerland will hold a vote on whether to implement a basic income of 2,500 francs per month (about $2,800) for all citizens. The Dutch city of Utrecht is planning to experiment with basic income payments starting in January. But could basic income work in the United States? And if so, what would it take?
Over the next few days, we’ll hear from: