MLK Had a Dream of Guaranteed Income. As Mayors of 11 U.S. Cities, We Are Bringing That Dream to Life


In 1967, against a backdrop of massive civil unrest, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? and called for the immediate abolition of poverty. In the richest nation in the world, King saw no justification for the evil of rampant poverty and chastised the government’s efforts against the ill as “piecemeal and pygmy.” Housing efforts were subject to the whims of the legislature, educational reforms were sluggish, and family assistance programs were neglected; all failed to reach the most profound needs of the poor. King’s economic dream was the most direct – a guaranteed income for all Americans. This week, more than 50 years later and against a similar backdrop of racial and economic unrest, we mayors are bringing that dream to life.

Economic insecurity isn’t new and poverty itself is violent. We need a policy solution that is as bold as it is innovative and as simple as it is ambitious. We must fight every day for a more just economy, because what happens to one of us happens indirectly to all of us and we are in this fight together. That’s why, as mayors of 11 American cities with a collective population of about 7 million, we are launching Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. This coalition will invest in additional guaranteed-income pilots and advocate for state and federal cash-based policies.

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CONTEXT: Basic Income

Basic income, also called universal basic income (UBI), citizen’s incomecitizen’s basic incomebasic income guaranteebasic living stipendguaranteed annual income, or universal demogrant, is a theoretical governmental public program for a periodic payment delivered to all citizens of a given population without a means test or work requirement.

Basic income can be implemented nationally, regionally, or locally. An unconditional income that is sufficient to meet a person’s basic needs (i.e., at or above the poverty line) is sometimes called a full basic income; if it is less than that amount, it may be called a partial basic income. A welfare system with some characteristics similar to those of a basic income is a negative income tax in which the government stipend is gradually reduced with higher labor income. Some welfare systems are sometimes regarded as steps on the way to a basic income, but because they have conditions attached, they are not basic incomes. One such system is a guaranteed minimum income system, which raises household incomes to a specified minimum. For example, Bolsa Família in Brazil is restricted to low-income families, and the children of recipients are obligated to attend school.

Several political discussions are related to the basic income debate, including those regarding automationartificial intelligence (AI), and the future of work. A key issue in these debates is whether automation and AI will significantly reduce the number of available jobs and whether a basic income could help alleviate such problems.

HISTORY – The idea of a state-run basic income dates back to the early 16th century when Sir Thomas More‘s Utopia depicted a society in which every person receives a guaranteed income. In the late 18th century, English radical Thomas Spence and American revolutionary Thomas Paine both declared their support for a welfare system that guaranteed all citizens an assured basic income. Nineteenth-century debate on basic income was limited, but during the early part of the 20th century, a basic income called a “state bonus” was widely discussed. In 1946 the United Kingdom implemented unconditional family allowances for the second and subsequent children of every family. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States and Canada conducted several experiments with negative income taxation, a related welfare system. From the 1980s and onward, the debate in Europe took off more broadly, and since then, it has expanded to many countries around the world. A few countries have implemented large-scale welfare systems that have some similarities to basic income, such as Bolsa Família in Brazil. From 2008 onward, several experiments with basic income and related systems have taken place.

Governments can contribute to individual and household income maintenance strategies in three ways:

  1. The government can establish a minimum income guarantee and not allow income to fall below levels set for various household types, maintaining these levels by paying means-tested benefits.
  2. Social insurance can pay benefits in the case of sickness, unemployment, or old age, on the basis of contributions paid.
  3. Universal unconditional payments, such as the United Kingdom’s Child Benefit for children.

A means-tested benefit that raises a household’s income to a guaranteed minimum level is unlike a basic income in that income delivered under a system of guaranteed minimum income is reduced exactly as other sources of income increase, whereas income received from a basic income is constant regardless of other sources of income. Johannes Ludovicus Vives (1492–1540), for example, proposed that the municipal government should be responsible for securing a subsistence minimum to all its residents “not on the grounds of justice but for the sake of a more effective exercise of morally required charity.” However, Vives also argued that to qualify for poor relief, the recipient must “deserve the help he or she gets by proving his or her willingness to work.”

The first to develop the idea of social insurance was Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794). After playing a prominent role in the French Revolution, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. While in prison, he wrote the Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (“Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind”; published posthumously by his widow in 1795), the last chapter of which describes his vision of social insurance and how it could reduce inequality, insecurity, and poverty. Condorcet mentioned, very briefly, the idea of a benefit to all children old enough to start working by themselves and to start up a family of their own. He is not known to have said or written anything else on this proposal, but his close friend and fellow member of the U.S. Constitutional Convention Thomas Paine (1737–1809) developed the idea much further, several years after Condorcet’s death.

The first social movement for basic income developed around 1920 in the United Kingdom. Its proponents included:

  • Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) argued for a new social model that combined the advantages of socialism and anarchism, and that basic income should be a vital component in that new society.
  • Dennis and Mabel Milner, a Quaker married couple of the Labour Party, published a short pamphlet entitled “Scheme for a State Bonus” (1918) that argued for the “introduction of an income paid unconditionally on a weekly basis to all citizens of the United Kingdom.” They considered it a moral right for everyone to have the means to subsistence, and thus it should not be conditional on work or willingness to work.
  • C. H. Douglas was an engineer who became concerned that most British citizens could not afford to buy the goods that were produced, despite the rising productivity in British industry. His solution to this paradox was a new social system he called social credit, a combination of monetary reform and basic income.

In 1944 and 1945, the Beveridge Committee, led by the British economist William Beveridge, developed a proposal for a comprehensive new welfare system of social insurance, means-tested benefits, and unconditional allowances for children. Committee member Lady Rhys-Williams argued that the incomes for adults should be more like a basic income. She was also the first to develop the negative income tax model. Her son Brandon Rhys Williams proposed a basic income to a parliamentary committee in 1982, and soon after that in 1984, the Basic Income Research Group, now the Citizen’s Basic Income Trust, began to conduct and disseminate research on basic income.

In the 1960s and 1970s, some welfare debates in the United States and Canada included discussions of basic income. Six pilot projects were also conducted with the negative income tax. President Richard Nixon proposed a massive overhaul of the federal welfare system, replacing many of the federal welfare programs with a negative income tax – a proposal favored by economist Milton Friedman. Nixon said, “The purpose of the negative income tax was to provide both a safety net for the poor and a financial incentive for welfare recipients to work.” Congress eventually approved a guaranteed minimum income for the elderly and the disabled, not for all citizens.

In the late 1970s and the 1980s, basic income was more or less forgotten in the United States, but it started to gain some traction in Europe. Basic Income European Network, later renamed to Basic Income Earth Network, was founded in 1986 and started to arrange international conferences every two years. From the 1980s, some people outside party politics and universities took an interest. In West Germany, groups of unemployed people took a stance for the reform.

In 2002, a green paper was commissioned on the topic by the Government of Ireland.

Since 2010, basic income again became an active topic in many countries. Basic income is currently discussed from a variety of perspectives, including in the context of ongoing automation and robotization, often with the argument that these trends mean less paid work in the future. This would create a need for a new welfare model. Several countries are planning for local or regional experiments with basic income or related welfare systems. For example, experiments in Canada, Finland, India, and Namibia have received international media attention. The policy was discussed by the Indian Ministry of Finance in an economic survey in 2017.

So far, no country has introduced an unconditional basic income as law. The first and only national referendum about basic income was held in Switzerland in 2016. The result was a rejection of the basic income proposal in a vote of 76.9% to 23.1%

Basic Income. (2020). Retrieved June 29, 2020, from Wikipedia.

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