Basic Income and the Welfare State

The argument goes that because we currently target money to those in need, by spreading out existing revenue to everyone instead, those currently targeted would necessarily receive less money, and thus would be worse off. Consequently, the end result of basic income could be theoretically regressive in nature by reducing the benefits of the poor and transferring that revenue instead to the middle classes and the rich. Obviously a bad idea, right? …

Basically, this particular argument would only make sense if we in no way altered our tax system to achieve UBI, and if our programs worked as we assume they work because that’s how they should work. The problem is they don’t work that way.
In the United States today, on average, just about one in four families living underneath the federal poverty line receives what most call welfare, which is actually known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. It gets worse. Because states are actually just written checks to give out as they please in the form of “block grants,” there are states where far fewer than one in four impoverished families receive cash assistance.

In Oklahoma, seven out of 100 families living in poverty receives TANF. In Wyoming, merely one in 100 of those living in poverty receives TANF. Where does the money go instead? It goes to educate the children of those earning over six figures. It goes to programs trying to convince women to get married. And it goes directly to state government treasuries so they can cut taxes on the rich. The fact is that cash welfare, as it exists today, is not given to the overwhelming majority of those living in poverty who need it. …

Assumption: Everyone living beneath the poverty line receives cash assistance.

Observation: Most don’t.

Assumption: Everyone living in poverty receives housing assistance.

Observation: Most don’t.

Assumption: Everyone living in poverty receives food assistance.

Observation: Some may temporarily, but the amount is insufficient and full of costly strings.

However, one of the best examples of all the vast differences between the assumption and the observation of how government benefits work is how we target those with disabilities. It has been estimated that 22 percent of adults in the U.S. have some form of disability. At the same time, 4.6 percent of adults age 18–64 in the U.S. are receiving disability income. So again, about one-quarter of those we say we should be targeting actually receive anything, while the bulk get nothing.

The absolute worst thing though, and what too few people seem to know, is that when it comes to disability income, you are essentially not even allowed to earn additional income. If you’re on SSDI and earn one dollar over $1,090 in a month, you are dropped from the program and lose 100 percent of your benefit. That is the steepest of “benefit cliffs” and it’s the equivalent of taxing those with disabilities at rates far greater than 100 percent as a reward for their labor. It’s also the exact opposite of a basic income that is never taken away. …

Simply put, $1,000 per month in welfare is not at all the same thing as $1,000 per month in basic income. It’s not just apples and oranges. It’s rotten apples and ripe oranges. …

The basic income argument operates on the reality that for every four people living under the poverty line, only about one person gets an amount of assistance that does more to trap them in poverty than to lift them out of it, and that $1 of welfare is worth far less than $1 of basic income. …

Using an example of a single parent with two kids within the current system, we could regressively replace around $45,000 of benefits (if we also eliminate child care, which is yet another detail I don’t recommend) with $12,000 in cash. That is a worst-design scenario and totally regressive right? No. It’s actually partially regressive and mostly progressive.

Although true that one in four would be worse off in such an inferior UBI design, it’s also true that three of four would be far better off because they would no longer receive little to nothing. As an oversimplified example for the sake of clarity, that means instead of the distribution across four adults being $45,000/$0/$0/$0, it would be $12,000/$12,000/$12,000/$12,000. That is more progressive as a whole than it is regressive, and inequality is reduced overall, not increased, because the total at the bottom went from $45,000 across four people to $48,000 across four people. And that is for basically the worst possible, most unrealistic of UBI designs.

But again, those numbers cannot be compared dollar for dollar. Welfare dollars disappear with work and basic income dollars are kept with work. That same parent receiving $45,000 for nothing, if they got a job paying $30,000 right now would receive $20,000 in benefits. That would be a gain of $30,000 combined with a loss of $25,000. That’s a gain of $5,000 for a $30,000 job, or in other words, an income tax of 83 percent. Who else is taxed at 83 percent? No one. In fact, the richest are taxed the least because their income, which isn’t derived from work, is special. It’s simply capital gains, which is taxed at 20 percent.

Even more troubling, welfare dollars themselves are not equivalent to each other. Despite it being against the law to vary welfare dollars along racial lines, that’s exactly what we do. How? It’s again due to the nature of block grants for states. When Bill Clinton signed his welfare reform into law, he agreed to write checks to the states and let them handle how they dish out welfare. As a result, just five years after welfare was reformed into what it is today, 63 percent of those in the programs with the least-harsh conditions were white and 11 percent were black, while 63 percent of those in the programs with the most-harsh conditions were black and 29 percent were white.

In other words, a dollar in welfare has about three to five times as many strings for someone who is black than someone who is white. These strings absolutely affect end results. …

The ability to say no to an employer provides people the bargaining power and the choice to determine how they work, where they work, for how much and for how long. No other policy does that. A minimum wage certainly doesn’t. Wage subsidies certainly don’t. Without basic income, the labor market is coercive, and that means people accept what they can get. With basic income, wages for low-demand jobs must go up and/or hours must go down in order to attract people with incomes independent of work to do them, or those same jobs must be automated to be performed by machines instead, whichever is cheaper.

A basic income is most simply aminimum income floor. It’s a new starting point above the poverty level instead of below it.

The Progressive Case for Replacing the Welfare State with Basic Income