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A Debate We Need

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

Katherine McFate

Philippe Van Parijs argues that his basic income proposal could raise issues of social justice and "inspire modest immediate reforms." Those who in the past have attempted to highlight the advantages of more universal European social policies for US audiences will be justifiably skeptical. The last two rounds of federal welfare reform have moved in exactly the opposite direction, and a number of public opinion polls show strong support for work-based welfare, among low-income people as well as middle-class voters. For decades, US policymakers have been obsessed with ferreting out the "undeserving" poor and promoting work.

Nonetheless, structural conditions in the United States may be setting the stage for a serious debate about basic income. The deregulation of labor protections and the erosion of traditional social programs have left larger numbers of people more economically vulnerable in the United States than in Europe, thus broadening the potential impact and appeal of a basic income approach. The question is: Will progressive forces in the United States rally behind a proactive radical innovation in social policy?

Liberals in the United States have spent an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to improve a 60-year-old income support system that was born, during the New Deal, through compromises that left regionalism, racism, and entrenched local economic interests intact. Why treat as sacrosanct an income support system that legitimizes huge state and local differences in the treatment of poor families?

Because it could be worse. It could be better, too, but it never will be if income support debates continue to be choke-chained to a public assistance program designed for an economy and social institutions that no longer exist.

We need an income support system that reflects and supports the needs of workers in the current economy–an economy in which almost 30 percent of workers are in "non-standard" employment. Most of these workers (and many others) do not qualify for pension coverage or unemployment compensation. (Almost two-thirds of Americans without jobs do not receive income assistance during periods of unemployment.) In many large cities, street corner day- labor pools are back in force because no income-support system for childless, non-elderly adults exists. A guaranteed basic income could create a social floor for all workers, particularly those in nonstandard, "flexible," low-skilled employment.

A guaranteed basic income could provide an income cushion to encourage periodic "re-skilling." As product cycles shorten and new technologies demand new and different skill sets, politicians and employers have encouraged American workers to acquire new skills and knowledge. But only a tiny proportion of workers in selected industries and occupations are provided with transitional income assistance when they temporarily leave full-time work to re-train or receive further education. Such investments are viewed as an individual’s responsibility. Yet, even employers might support a basic income system that encouraged easier entry into and exit from work, and facilitated part-time work and training.

A well-designed basic income support system could reflect and support the diversity of American families and provide parents with more options.Two parallel public policy debates about families, work, and child welfare are occurring today, independently of one another. In one debate, it is argued that poor children are better off if their mothers are employed in paid work outside the home, while someone else looks after the children. (The mothers are modeling the work ethic.) In the second, it is argued that non-poor children will be better off if their mothers forego income (and careers) to become full-time caregivers. (The mothers are demonstrating their primary commitment is to their children’s welfare.)

In the first debate, the government will pay anyone but Mom to provide childcare; in the second, the government provides a special childcare tax credit to encourage/induce Mom to stay home. A guaranteed minimum income could neatly marry these two discussions: a working mother could reduce her work hours, and a stay-at-home parent would receive an independent source of cash assistance. It would highlight the time/money trade-off that all families face and would privilege no one family type.

The United States desperately needs a public discussion that challenges the prevailing belief that a person’s worth and social contribution can and should be measured primarily (or exclusively) by his or her income from paid work. The right kind of basic income debate could force us to examine the activities and behavior we value as members of a family, a community, and a democracy–as distinct from the activities the market values.

For a growing number of Americans, the promise of permanent jobs that provide middle-class security has vanished. Work-based benefits are contracting. Yet our social policies are pushing larger numbers of people into more complete dependence on waged work. It’s time to imagine a new social policy better suited to the exigencies of a post-industrial, global economy. Basic income as a mechanism of distributive justice?It’s an idea worthy of public debate.

Katherine McFate is a program officer at the Rockefeller Foundation.

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



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