Imagine a society where no one needs to fear economic destitution. Now try imagining that such a society is possible—without unemployment benefits or welfare programs. If it sounds like a big idea, that’s because it is: the basic income guarantee (BIG), a shrewd and radical concept that the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network (USBIG) would like to see gain some renewed traction.
At its heart, a BIG is a simple concept: An unconditional payment from the government serves as a floor under everyone’s income, so that regardless of gender, age, race, class, or creed, people can meet their basic needs. “Income in a market economy doesn’t have to start at zero,” USBIG coordinating committee member Karl Widerquist tells Multinational Monitor (May-June 2009).
The blanket payment would also reduce gender inequalities in our current social support system, the University of Reading political lecturer explains. In the United States, a disproportionate percentage of elderly women live in poverty, because Social Security favors direct earners over spouses and children. Additionally, while developed countries could afford a larger payment, less developed countries could still substantially support their citizens with a smaller sum. Widerquist tells Multinational Monitor that, in an ideal world, he’d like to see countries collaborate to ensure a high payment for all people.
BIG’s central conceit, while seemingly the stuff of radical economic policy, enjoyed support from a broad spectrum of thinkers in the 1970s. “At one point, it seemed like the inevitable next step in social policy. People as diverse as Martin Luther King and Richard Nixon endorsed it,” Widerquist tells the Monitor, a watchdog of multinational companies and labor issues. “But the diversity of its appeal was matched by the diversity of its opposition.”
There is now a popular precedent: the Alaska Permanent Fund, which since 1982 has distributed to the state’s citizens annual dividends (generally $1,000 to $1,800) netted from oil and natural gas revenue. The program is managed by a semi-independent corporation, which keeps it out of direct political jurisdiction, and enjoys consistent support. Because dividends are the same for all Alaskans, lower-income citizens receive proportionately more assistance—sans the stigma and grueling politicking that often accompany welfare programs.