Skip to main content

What if the government guaranteed you an income?

By David R. Wheeler
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
In the early 20th century, industrial tycoons like the Rockefellers and Carnegies amassed fortunes in railroads, steel or oil. Here, a view of Cornelius Vanderbilt's residence in New York in 1908. In the early 20th century, industrial tycoons like the Rockefellers and Carnegies amassed fortunes in railroads, steel or oil. Here, a view of Cornelius Vanderbilt's residence in New York in 1908.
HIDE CAPTION
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Wheeler: U.S. should provide a monthly cash payment to every American
  • Wheeler: A guaranteed minimum income can address unemployment issue
  • He says it would be a psychological benefit, lift the economy, and create stability
  • Wheeler: It is also cheaper than our current malfunctioning safety net

Editor's note: David R. Wheeler lives in Lexington, Kentucky, where he is a freelance writer and a journalism professor at Asbury University. Follow him on Twitter @David_R_Wheeler The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- First, the bad news: Even if the economy improves, middle-class career paths will continue to disappear as globalization and technological innovation render more jobs obsolete.

Now, the good news: The fear, stress and humiliation caused by unemployment (and underemployment) can be alleviated with a simple solution.

And now, the even-better news: This simple solution is starting to find backers on both sides of the political spectrum.

David Wheeler
David Wheeler

A monthly cash payment to every American, no questions asked, would solve several of our most daunting challenges. It's called a basic income, and it's cheaper and much more effective than our current malfunctioning safety net, which costs nearly $1 trillion per year.

The idea of a basic income, sometimes called a guaranteed minimum income or a negative income tax, has been discussed for decades by notable economists like Milton Friedman. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the idea had bipartisan backing before losing steam. Recently, in the face of a sputtering economy, a weak job market and rising income inequality, it has been gathering supporters at an ever-quickening pace.

In fact, just last month, former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich called a basic income guarantee "almost inevitable."

The concept of a basic income is not entirely abstract. Several countries, such as Brazil, have achieved notable success with their programs, lifting many people out of poverty. In countries like India, nongovernmental organizations are experimenting with pilot programs in specific areas, with promising results so far.

The United States is already experimenting with a variation of basic income, even though most people don't realize it. Alaska has a small version, called a Permanent Fund Dividend, which is incredibly popular and made the state one of the most economically equal places in America. Importantly, Alaskans don't consider it "redistribution," but rather "joint ownership."

The benefits of a basic income on a national scale would be wide-ranging. First, there's the lift to the overall economy if everyone has money to spend. Next, there are the obvious psychological benefits of knowing you can always afford food and shelter. Then there's the societal stability factor: If people's basic economic needs are being met—no matter what the unpredictable job market is doing—we don't have to worry about the potential for civil unrest as a result of mass unemployment.

Economist Gar Alperovitz told me that a guaranteed minimum income would not only defuse the political crisis posed by worsening long-term unemployment, but would also open up the possibility of a reduction in the length of the work week.

Due partly to technological innovation, we already have a situation where less work is spread among more people, and this phenomenon will increase in the future. With a basic income, this development is nothing to fear.

"Once people have the freedom to elect to work less, their capacity to engage in the work of rebuilding community and democracy can increase far beyond what is possible in today's precariously overworked society," Alperovitz said.

At the moment, the idea of a guaranteed minimum income might be more popular with liberals than conservatives. But lately, conservative thinkers have become more outspoken in their support of the concept.

Philosopher Matt Zwolinski has made a libertarian case for a basic income. "Conservatives care about limiting the power of government and increasing personal responsibility. ... Compared to our current welfare state, a basic income does both. Instead of a vast bureaucracy of over 120 different antipoverty programs at the federal level, you've got a program so simple it could be administered by a piece of software."

Furthermore, he said, instead of subjecting the poor to a host of invasive, paternalistic and degrading requirements designed to make sure they're behaving in ways the government approves of, a basic income gives them cash, and asks them to take responsibility for spending that money to improve their own condition.

Of course, all government programs have imperfections, and the basic income idea has an obvious one: There will still be people incapable of functioning in daily life—people who will spend their money before paying for basic necessities. What should be done about these "moochers"?

My answer is that housing shelters and soup kitchens could continue to exist, helping people who cannot be helped in any other way. But the cost of these programs is just a tiny fraction of the overall safety net, and in cities with strong religious and philanthropic support, they would not need to be financed by the government at all. No one needs to sleep on the street.

Another objection: What if people want to work more, not less? No problem. Want multiple jobs? Go right ahead and take them. As advocates of a basic income point out, nothing would keep people from working and earning as much as they want.

The global economy will experience big and small changes in the coming decades. We must do something to avoid a future of high unemployment and misery. A guaranteed minimal income is a way to start.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 9:53 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT