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
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 economyan 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
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 individuals 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 childrens 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 persons 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 democracyas distinct from the activities the
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. Its 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?Its
an idea worthy of public debate.