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The Big Picture

A response to "A Basic Income for All"by Philippe van Parijs.

Peter Edelman

Philippe Van Parijs makes a good intellectual case for his proposition. As he says, the idea is not new. But it has been some time since anyone proposed it, so it is interesting that it is surfacing again. One consequence of the so-called "welfare reform" in the United States is a modest resurgence of discussion of how to help people who have no cash income. This is good, because the issue now has particularly pressing significance. On any given day there are about one million women, plus their two million children, who were pushed off the welfare rolls or can’t get on welfare now, and have neither a job nor cash assistance. Restoring a cash safety net is urgent.

The UBI is one relevant idea. Others include a refundable care-giving tax credit, which would provide income for people caring for children or for elderly or disabled family members. These ideas are a long way from being enacted, but the fact that they are being put forward is valuable.

To be honest, though, I am ambivalent about spending time just now on proposals like the UBI. If discussing a guaranteed income helps move the issue of income adequacy toward the front burner, I am pleased. Frankly, I am not sure that it does. At the moment, anyway, those who advocate an income guarantee in a way that is not directly related to work face a steep burden of persuasion. We should have a family allowance, or some kind of income base, in the United States. But I worry that serious pursuit of such proposals at the present time imposes an opportunity cost–the time not spent on more politically salient ideas, which could actually be enacted, with immediate consequences for the lives of low-income people.

At best the UBI is only a piece of the picture, anyway. We actually have a UBI "cousin" in the United States–food stamps. It’s not pure because it has some work requirements, but these are not stringently applied, so food stamps amount to an income guarantee of about $3,500 for a family of four with no cash income. They constitute an enormously important policy, but that policy is grossly insufficient if it is not nested in a mixture of other policies and strategies. In the "good old days," when "welfare reform" meant a guaranteed income, I used to worry that its adherents weren’t concerned enough about policies to help people find work. I am still concerned that people on the progressive side who want to reduce poverty in the United States do not have a broad enough view, and I think the reappearance of ideas focusing heavily on cash income skews the debate and moves us away from that synthesis. Recreating a decent safety net for those who are not in a position to work is vital, but I would focus centrally on work, including attention to wages and working conditions, and treat proposals like the UBI more as a component than as a centerpiece.

I once had a conversation with Robert Kennedy, while he was running for President in 1968, that has stayed with me. I told him the staff was proposing to put his support for a guaranteed income in a position paper we were drafting on welfare. He said, "I’m not for a guaranteed income. I’m for a guaranteed job." His point was one of emphasis, because he did in fact favor provision of decent cash assistance for people who were not in a position to work. But he believed that we had excluded large numbers of people, especially young people of color, from the labor market, and he wanted to focus on remedying that awful set of facts. I have the same reaction to ideas like the UBI when we don’t discuss them in proper context.

Experience with the 1996 welfare law has revealed three stories that need to be addressed in the forthcoming debate over its reauthorization. One is of those who have jobs but did not escape poverty. The 60 percent of former welfare recipients employed on any given day are earning an average of about $7 per hour and working an average of around thirty hours per week. They need help with income, continuing health and child care coverage, and housing–and these are needs they share with millions of others who were never on welfare and are not, given the stingy way we define poverty, even considered "poor." A second story is of those who are off the rolls and not working. For those people, a safety net must be reinvented. In the short run this is only going to occur within the framework of the welfare structure created in 1996–not in talk about something like the UBI. The third story is of those still on welfare who are going to hit the time limits soon. Some of them, anyway, can work, but need a lot more help than they have gotten so far, and maybe a publicly supported jobs program as well. (And that’s just the jobs and income side of the equation. We also need to invest in education and activities for children, attend to the special challenge of neighborhoods where poor people live in concentration, and reestablish in our inner cities the safe and supportive community environment the rest of us take for granted.)

So, while I appreciate Van Parijs’s contribution, I don’t think it gets us very far in the real world of policy and politics where the decisions will actually be made.

Peter Edelman is professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.

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Originally published in the October/ November 2000 issue of Boston Review



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