Skip to main content

What if the government guaranteed you an income?

By David R. Wheeler
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
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
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT