DEBATT – Allan Sheahen, Basic Income Guarantee: Why now is the right time

I denna artikel diskuterar Allan Sheahen de växande problemen med fattigdom, hunger och ojämlikhet i USA, och hävdar att Basinkomst kan vara lösningen. Allan Sheahen är styrelseledamot i U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network och författare till the Basic Income Guarantee: Your Right to Economic Security. Han kan nås via email på

Texten är publicerad i The Californian, Sep. 5, 2013. Läs texten här under eller på The Californians websida.

For 30 years, we have been watching television reports of food lines, unemployment lines, and people sleeping in the streets. The number of Americans living below the poverty line is now 46 million — 15.1 percent of our population. One child in five lives in poverty, compared to one in 12 in France and one in 38 in Sweden.

We have seen a lot of hand wringing, but no real solutions. Can anything be done? Or is it true that “the poor shall be always with us?”

The situation parallels the late 1960s, when a presidential commission, faced with the hunger and poverty of that decade, unanimously recommended that the federal government provide a basic income guarantee (BIG) — with no strings attached — to every American in need. The report was buried and forgotten. During the 1970s, Congress wrestled with four different guaranteed income bills. Not one of them passed. Today, despite the high unemployment rate of 7.6 percent, welfare is still a dirty word.

“If you’re poor and unemployed and not rich,” said presidential candidate Herman Cain in 2012, “it’s your own fault.”

Despite the increase in hunger and poverty, Congress is currently debating not whether to cut food stamps, but by how much. The Senate has proposed cuts of $4 billion. The House wants to cut $20 billion. Many Democrats are supporting the Senate version. The idea of a basic income guarantee has fallen from favor among all but its most ardent supporters. Today’s social activists are calling for a guaranteed job, not a guaranteed income.

The trouble with the guaranteed job plan is: Where are the jobs going to come from? If we want the government to create jobs for everyone out of work, we are talking about 14 million jobs. That is not even possible, let alone practical. And even if it were possible, the jobs would likely be of the dig-a-hole-and-fill-it-up variety. The government would become a monstrous employer. It would cost far more than just guaranteeing everyone an income. But something must be done. Economists predict we will never again see full employment in the United States. The traditional link between jobs and income has broken down, just as the president’s commission and others predicted 44 years ago. Technology and automation are changing the way we live faster than we can adjust our thinking. It is future shock, and it is here now.

So those outraged that hunger and poverty still exist in a country as wealthy as ours and those outraged that millions of Americans are forced to live in fear — fear of losing their jobs, fear of being destitute in old age or of winding up living in the streets — continue to come back to the basic income guarantee as the most pragmatic solution. Despite its fall from popularity, a wide range of economists still support the idea. The late Milton Friedman, adviser to Presidents Nixon and Reagan said: “We should replace the ragbag of specific welfare programs with a single comprehensive program of income supplements in cash — a negative income tax. It would provide an assured minimum to all persons in need, regardless of the reasons for their need.” Strong stuff from the right. But what about the cost? And why would anyone work if his or her income were guaranteed?

The United States is a wealthy nation. We could afford a BIG for everyone by eliminating most of the current social administrative programs, which cost north of $400 billion a year — 25 percent of which goes for administrative expenses, not to the needy. We can close many tax loopholes, which currently amount to $1 trillion a year.

During the debates of the 1970s, Louisiana’s tough-minded Senator Russell Long admitted, “Cost is not a problem. The problem is paying people not to work.”

The idea of giving money to people for not working goes against some of our most cherished and deep-rooted beliefs about the nobility of work. Is the threat of starvation needed to make people work? Or do people have a moral right to eat, whether they work or not? The evidence suggests people want to work, not just for the money, but also for the satisfaction of being useful. Government test programs of 8,700 families found people given guaranteed incomes worked 91 percent as much as those who were not.

With robotics becoming a household word, perhaps we should ask ourselves why it is necessary for us always to be working. “Workfare” assumes that the basic conditions of human life have to be earned. But why? Why not treat people’s basic economic existence as a legal right and then provide incentives to work to gain more? Why should it be necessary to force everyone to work? Would it not be better to begin to liberate ourselves from this necessity?

Former French President Francois Mitterand summed it up: “Today, with sophisticated machines – computers, microprocessors … we can liberate man from the harshness of work. We can begin to produce more, produce better and, at the same time, give man a chance to live, to use more intelligently the moments when he doesn’t work, to have a little learning from time to time.”

The adoption of a basic income guarantee would virtually wipe out hunger and poverty in America. It would provide economic security to everyone. It would be like an insurance policy. It would give each of us the assurance that, no matter what happened, we and our families would not starve.

The president’s commission said that simply because one exists, one is entitled to certain inalienable human rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, “every U.S. citizen should be guaranteed a minimum income – enough for food, shelter, and basic necessities.”

Politically, of course, it is not so easy. Throughout history, the name of the game has been cheap labor. A basic income guarantee would provide enough economic freedom so that a person would not have to take a dirt-cheap job just to survive. It would threaten certain entrenched economic interests.

It is also one of the most misunderstood ideas of our time.

“After all the debate in Congress,” Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) once said, “it was not likely that as many as a dozen U.S. Senators understood the subject … in politics, a certain patience is demanded. The idea of a guaranteed income came precipitously to public affairs. Few were prepared. Time should remedy this.”

Perhaps the basic income guarantee is an idea whose time has returned.

Allan Sheahen is a board member of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee (USBIG) Network. email:
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