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Columns

The New Old Solution to Poverty

By Matthew B. Gilbert, Contributing Opinion Writer
Matthew B. Gilbert ’21 is a Computer Science concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

The United States is stuck. Mainstream political discourse in this country seems less and less likely to have answers for the problems facing us today. In many cases, it feels incapable of even identifying these problems. There is a palpable feeling that the status quo cannot hold for much longer. In an era of unprecedented change, it is time for new ideas. I want to offer a few of them. But to do that, we need to go back in time.

As the U.S. established itself in the late 1700s, founding father Thomas Paine, who authored the pamphlet “Common Sense” that helped spur the colonies to revolution, was advocating another revolutionary idea in “Agrarian Justice.” Paine argued that all citizens should receive a payment at age 21 and a pension every year starting at age 50 as recompense for the loss of common ownership of the Earth. Centuries later, Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for a guaranteed minimum income, a payment to all people linked to the median American income, in order to end poverty and ensure dignity for all Americans. In the late 1960s early 70s, a bill called the Family Assistance Plan, which would have provided poor families with a basic income (over $10,000 in present-day money to a family of four), was endorsed by over 1,000 economists and passed the U.S. House of Representatives twice before failing in the Senate.

What all these plans have in common is the recognition that the most effective tool to rectify economic injustice is money. If we are going to seek the abolition of poverty in this century, we must understand that education, jobs, and other programs can only do so much. To quote author Rutger Bregman, “Poverty is not a lack of character. Poverty is a lack of cash.” The most effective, simple, and direct way to address poverty is to give people money. Sadly, this kind of thinking has been absent from the mainstream for the past half-century.

That brings us to the present day. Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang brought this idea back into the spotlight by making a universal basic income, which he called the Freedom Dividend, the centerpiece of his campaign. But Yang is not the only proponent of UBI out there. The movement behind basic income is bigger than any one person, and after all these years, decades, and even centuries, this movement may finally be nearing the mountaintop. I invite you to join us.

First, we should understand what UBI is. Let’s go letter by letter. The I is for Income: a UBI is a monetary payment. The U is for Universal — that means it goes to everyone; rich or poor, young or old; black or white, it doesn’t matter — every legal adult gets the exact same payment. Next is B, for Basic: it should be enough to cover basic needs, such as food, water, and shelter. Various basic income advocates across the political spectrum have proposed their own particular versions, but those three conditions are generally agreed upon (although MLK was advocating for more than just a basic income — but that’s worth discussing at a later time).

Is UBI the solution to poverty, or is it unworkable and a pipe dream? There’s nothing wrong with being skeptical of new ideas. I became convinced of the importance of UBI after discovering a 1970s experiment in Canada. A program called Mincome gave a basic income to a few thousand Canadians in Manitoba from 1974 to 1979 before funding was cut. The data was ignored for decades before finally being unearthed and then published in 2011. The results are astonishing. Most recipients were lifted out of poverty. Hospitalizations, injuries, and rates of teen pregnancy decreased while high school graduation rates improved and there was a dramatic drop in mental health issues. The money made people’s lives better. In an era of record-setting economic growth but also rampant inequality we are long overdue for some policies that would make people’s lives better.

Few people in the media, and maybe not even Yang himself, fully understood how radical of an idea he was proposing. UBI fundamentally alters our relationship with work and survival. It ensures a basic right to exist for all Americans. It frees ordinary people from the need to take any and every job offered just to get by. It gives everyone the chance to worry a little less and to take ownership of their own lives. UBI is not about the money; the money is a means to an end.

It’s time for new ideas. It’s time for universal basic income.

Matthew B. Gilbert ’21 is a Computer Science concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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