Written by Caitlin Endyke
At Building Movement, we’ve been writing a lot recently about poverty in America and the importance of a strong social safety net. During the recent government shutdown, we turned our focus to those who would be affected most – folks who rely on government services for essentials like food and baby formula – and made sure to highlight the importance of these social services in the daily lives of many Americans. The safety net remains crucial for those who don’t have an income that will stretch far enough to cover these basic needs.
But what if we could guarantee an income that would? A recent petition in Switzerland has garnered enough signatures to trigger a popular vote on whether to require the government to provide a monthly income for each citizen, regardless of gender, age, race, or economic status. Proponents of the idea say that it will not only eradicate poverty in the nation but also “unleash creativity and entrepreneurialism”, as the average worker has more wiggle room to do the work they want, rather than what is required just to make ends meet.
It’s a policy that is undoubtedly easier to enact when your country is relatively small (Switzerland’s population is just over 8 million citizens) and rich (they rank 4th in GDP; the USA ranks 10th). Yet it’s been tried in other, less wealthy nations as well. In the late 1970s, the small Canadian town of Dauphin doled out a guaranteed monthly income (with poorer families receiving additional checks to supplement earnings) in an experiment to see whether or not getting the handout would cause a disincentive to work. As it turned out, the drop in the labor force was small (mostly among new mothers and teenagers, who took the time off from paid work to focus on other work that doesn’t get compensated in the market), and accompanied some unexpected benefits. Poverty disappeared, high-school graduation rates went up, and hospitalizations went down. The program ended 5 years later, and while no official report was ever released it was mostly regarded as a success.
What’s most interesting is that the idea has garnered support on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Liberals support it as a way of alleviating poverty, while libertarians back it because they see it as a way to decrease the size of government – if people are guaranteed an income that gets them to a point beyond needing social services like food stamps or health insurance, we could theoretically downsize those governmental departments. The article mentioned above quotes noted conservative social scientist Charles Murray, from the American Enterprise Institute, as being an early supporter of the idea.
If you’re familiar with Alice O’Connor’s Poverty Knowledge, that name might look familiar. At BMP, we use monthly calls between our staff and project team to learn about issues facing the nonprofit sector. On this month’s call, we focused on a selection from O’Connor’s book, which provides an insightful and detailed look into the history of anti-poverty programs in the United States, from the Great Society until the early 2000s. She points out that the Murray’s book Losing Ground was responsible for shifting the popular discourse around anti-poverty programs from one that was focused on structural issues that led to poverty to one that advocated for cutting programs and put responsibility (both for being poor, and for finding a way out of poverty) almost solely on the individual. While his logic was flawed and his argument was ideologically biased, Murray was widely successful in shifting the dialogue toward one that blamed people living in poverty for “poor decision-making” and a projected growing dependence on public assistance. Murray’s stance against welfare programs was so strong, it’s no surprise that he would support a basic income in order to further eliminate these services.
What’s striking is how similar Murray’s argument from 1984 is to the narrative today – that Americans living below the poverty line are somehow at fault. In our discussion, Linda Campbell , our project team member in Detroit, noted how many parallels she drew from Murray’s argument and the environment of austerity that she’s experiencing in Detroit – where the lack of an articulated anti-poverty strategy has led to debilitating cuts in services. We also discussed how this frame of individual responsibility led to a distinct and harmful “othering” of the nation’s poor that is hard to break out of. Murray’s ideological frame – one that linked poverty to unwed motherhood, for instance – provided an easy way to both racialize and stigmatize low-income people. As more Americans took up this argument, it became harder and harder to advocate for programs that would help eliminate structural barriers that make it more difficult for families to ascend the economic ladder. Services continue to get cut, even in trying economic times when people rely on them the most.
But is writing everyone a government check the answer? Maybe; maybe not. Murray’s proposition is to bring everyone in America up to a $10,000/year income floor, which is hardly enough to support a family and would in no way eliminate the need for supplemental services. But at least people are starting to talk again about how we can begin to lower a poverty rate that has remained stagnant during the past few years. Perhaps first we need to reclaim the popular narrative, asserting that living in poverty is not a choice people make willingly. Then, we can tackle the intricacies of how best to ensure every American can meet basic needs, provide for a family, and has a visible path up the economic ladder.