How to Win the War on Poverty

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Welfare programs have long attacked the symptoms of poverty. What if we targeted the roots?

Last month, progressives celebrated the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of War on Poverty. In January 1964 Johnson laid out an ambitious set of programs that have helped countless low-income families afford housing, medical care, education, and basic nutrition. In policy terms, the programs were the clearest expression yet of what Franklin Roosevelt once called the Second Bill of Rights—the idea that the government had a responsibility to ensure economic well-being for everyone.

But even before neoliberal reforms gutted War on Poverty programs beginning in the 1970s, Johnson’s war never really succeeded. Even as his reforms went into effect, cities across the country exploded in riots as the violence of entrenched poverty became starkly visible. Half a century later, these programs continue to fight a losing battle. Within weeks of Johnson’s anniversary, in fact, Harvard economists released a landmark study on social mobility that includes a startling finding: children born into poverty today are no more likely to escape it than they were 50 years ago. There couldn’t be a more appropriate time to rethink this war.

One problem with Johnson’s approach has been that it mostly attacks the symptoms of poverty—hunger, lack of medical care, barriers to education. But what if we could attack poverty’s roots? What if a government program could simply eliminate it? That’s the thinking behind universal basic income (UBI), a proposal to give every American enough money to stay above the poverty line—unconditionally and for life.

OK—stay with me. This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Alaska has had a similar, if smaller, system for decades and Swiss voters will soon decide whether to introduce a much larger basic income in their country. Proposals and pilot programs have, in fact, sprung up around the world. And people in unlikely places are starting to take notice.

One of them is Charles Murray, the libertarian author of The Bell Curve and Coming Apart. A longtime critic of welfare programs, Murray estimates that, compared to the current system, giving every American $10,000 a year would be far cheaper. Within two decades, the government could be saving around $1 trillion annually. Tim Harford, a more progressive economist at the Financial Times, more or less agrees. Although his basic income is closer to $6,000 a year, Harford says it’s perfectly affordable as long as most people use it to supplement income they’re already earning, meaning they’d still make enough to pay taxes. And under his plan, large parts of the welfare state, from housing subsidies to medical benefits, would remain intact.

Of course, there are about as many approaches as there are supporters, and plenty of questions remain unresolved. Should basic income replace welfare programs or supplement them? What happens to public education, or health care? How much money is enough to stay out of poverty?

Specifics aside, it’s worth considering what all a basic income could accomplish. For one thing, it would make workers less dependent on any single job, forcing employers to improve working conditions and wages to retain them. Basic income would also make it easier for workers to organize unions without the risk of losing everything. In the U.S., close to one-in-five union supporters is illegally fired for organizing, a number that’s jumped over the past decade. UBI could help cushion these blows, providing a safety net for workers and their families, and allowing more to organize.

It could also have huge cultural impact. As anthropologist David Graeber points out in a recent conversation on basic income, it’s impossible to know the real cultural effects of inequality. How many books, art pieces, or bands have never come into being because young people are working extra hours to pay off student debt or afford exorbitant rent? In other places and times, welfare benefits have been critical in the arts. Joe Strummer famously met Mick Jones on an unemployment line; J.K. Rowling spent years on the dole as a single mother while polishing her early manuscripts for Harry Potter. For generations after World War II, Britain’s expansive welfare state subsidized some of the most exciting and vital artistic expression in the nation’s history.

Welfare programs, of course, come with their own set of problems, from being too low to alleviate poverty to stigmatizing and humiliating those in need. But the biggest problem may be the latest trend toward “work first,” an idea pioneered when Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) replaced welfare in the U.S. in the mid-‘90s. Here’s how it works: the single mothers who make up the bulk of TANF participants don’t see any benefits unless they seek unpaid “workfare” outside the home, often in retail or food service. And going to college doesn’t count. So instead of recognizing the critical and demanding work single mothers are already performing for their families, the attitude behind TANF is “any job is a good job.” As long as it comes with a paycheck (which recipients don’t actually get), any work is more important than raising children or getting an education.

(And by the way, that policy hasn’t made much of a dent: while TANF participation has dropped 60 percent since the program began—recipients are now kicked out of the program after 60 months—the number of families living in deep poverty has jumped 13 percent.)

It’s this work-obsessed ideology that basic income turns on its head. Rather than use work requirements and means tests to determine who deserves to get assistance, UBI applies the same standard to everyone. Whether someone should be kept out of poverty is not a question of their intentions or actions—with UBI, it’s something everyone could reasonably expect. At its core, it’s about trust—can we trust people to live outside of poverty, to escape their dependence on low-wage labor, to define success for themselves?

Of course, for most of us this is all still pretty utopian. Basic income may be making the rounds of activist and policycircles for the first time in decades, but it’s going to be a tough sell in Congress. For it to be possible, attitudes about inequality and the value of labor would have to change quite a bit in Washington, and Democrats would probably need to get over their aversion to new ideas. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen; it’ll just take a while.

But maybe that’s not important right now. Maybe for now the takeaway is in the conversation itself—about labor, about inequality, and about who deserves to live in poverty. The very idea of a universal basic income forces us to confront the fact that poverty is to a large degree a political problem rather than an economic one. Entrenched poverty is what happens when you shred the safety net, bust unions, and let corporations write public policy. It’s not natural and it’s not inevitable. There’s no real reason we can’t win this war; we just need a new strategy.

Image by the USDA, licensed under Creative Commons.

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