Guaranteed Annual Income Could End U.S. Poverty

Guaranteed Annual Income Could End U.S. Poverty


Most Americans are familiar with Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream of ending racial segregation in the United States. However, Martin Luther King Jr. had another dream that is less well known. Before King was assassinated, he advocated a guaranteed annual income for every American, so that nobody would have to live in poverty in the United States.  In a nation where people have been conditioned by the Reagan Revolution to believe  in the mythological benefits of trickle down economics that idea may seem absurdly radical. However, before the conservative demonization of government programs was so thoroughly successful, the idea even had backing from Republican President Richard Nixon.

Now the concept is enjoying a resurgence as journalists, academics and anti-poverty advocates give the idea another look in the midst our current perpetual economic crisis where unemployment remains stubbornly high and wages have stagnated. The idea is simple. Give every American a certain guaranteed basic income check every month. This would be done without bureaucratic hurdles or means testing, and every person would receive an equal sized check. Say the figure is 3000 dollars per person annually.  A single person would qualify for 250 dollars each month while a family of four would get 1000 dollars a month.

Implementing such a program would cost around 900 billion dollars. However, by putting money in the pockets of every American it would do much more to stimulate the economy than the 787 billion dollar economic stimulus package that was passed in 2009, which included tax cuts, federal loans, grants, and contracts, but little in the way of immediate financial relief for struggling households. The idea is simple but feasible. Putting money in the pockets of Americans would stimulate consumer spending, which in turn would help businesses prosper, leading them to hire more people.

While critics might assume that such a program would promote laziness, the reality is that it would eliminate the current patchwork of programs that haphazardly tackle poverty while sometimes creating disincentives to work. For that reason even Conservatives like Charles Murray at the American Enterprise Institute, support the ideaas a way of eliminating bureaucratic red tape, to provide a system that confronts poverty head on without picking winners and losers.

The program would operate much like Social Security, except that benefits would apply to everyone. In practice, the check that Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or one of the Koch Brothers receives might be cancelled out in their ledger, by a higher income tax rate (provided loopholes for the wealthy are closed), but even they would be eligible for a check under the program. The bottom line is that the program would work to eliminate poverty. The challenge has never been complex. Putting a monthly check in a poor person’s bank account does rid that person of the burden of poverty. The solution is real, but the roadblock has always been one of political willpower rather than a substantive barrier. Now as journalists, activists and academics take another look at a half century old idea, it might be time to give it a try.


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