Incremental Progress

As regular readers of this blog know, I support a UBI–a universal basic income–rather than the current patchwork of social programs that are socially divisive and fiscally inadequate. That support rests on three convictions: first, that no one is truly free who must face a daily struggle just to survive; second, our current government safety-net policies are dividing, rather than unifying, our diverse population; and third, market economies work best when buttressed by a strong safety net.

As I’ve argued before, public policies can either increase or reduce polarization and tensions between groups. Policies intended to help less fortunate citizens can be delivered in ways that stoke resentments, or in ways that encourage national cohesion.  Think about widespread public attitudes about welfare programs aimed at poor people, and contrast those attitudes with the overwhelming majorities that approve of Social Security and Medicare. Polling data since 1938 shows growing numbers of Americans who believe poor people are lazy, and that government assistance—what we usually refer to as welfare—breeds dependence. These attitudes about poverty and welfare have remained largely unchanged despite overwhelming evidence that they are untrue.

Social Security and Medicare send a very different message. They are universal programs; virtually everyone contributes to them and everyone who lives long enough participates in their benefits. Just as we don’t generally hear accusations that “those people are driving on roads paid for by my taxes,” or sentiments begrudging a poor neighbor’s garbage pickup, beneficiaries of programs that include everyone are much more likely to escape stigma. In addition to the usual questions of efficacy and cost-effectiveness, policymakers should evaluate proposed programs by considering whether they are likely to unify or further divide Americans. Universal policies are far more likely to unify, an important and often overlooked argument favoring a Universal Basic Income.

There is a growing body of research favoring the approach, and I was interested to read a  New York Times column that traced growing support for the proposition that–duh– the best way to combat poverty is with money.

For the past three decades, federal aid for lower-income families has largely consisted of handing out coupons: housing vouchers for families that need housing; food stamps for families that need food; Medicaid cards for health care.

Sometimes, however, what families need most is a little extra money they can spend as they see fit. Researchers have found that even small amounts of cash can make a big difference in the lives of children from lower-income households, improving their grades, their chances of graduating from high school and their income as adults.

In an important shift in poverty policy, some states are starting to provide that kind of financial aid. During the recently concluded spring legislative season, states including Minnesota, Colorado and Connecticut created programs to give people money.

The increased interest in such programs was sparked by the temporary expansion of the federal child tax credit during the pandemic. The credit reduces the amount of federal tax that families with children owe, and in 2021, Congress raised the maximum credit per child to $3,600 from $2,000. Importantly, it also authorized payment of the entire amount in cash to households that didn’t owe enough in taxes to fully benefit. Until then, families that earned less money had received less help.

Unsurprisingly,Republicans refused to extend the program, and their refusal prevailed thanks to Senator Joe Manchin, who agreed with Senate Republicans that only people who work should qualify for help.

But for that one year, the government offered the same assistance for every eligible child.

Since then, Democratic majorities in seven states — often with support from Republican legislators — have created their own “refundable” child tax credits, the technical term for the policy of paying benefits in cash to families that can’t use the full value of a credit because they owe less than that amount in taxes. The only two states that had created refundable child tax credits before the pandemic, New York and California, both significantly increased eligibility.

The states hand out less money than did the federal government. The largest credit, which Minnesota created in May, offers up to $1,750 per child for households with incomes below $35,000 per year — roughly half the lapsed federal credit. But unlike the federal expansion, the state credits are meant to be permanent.

There is now a significant body of research supporting not only cash payments, but also the importance of a robust social safety net to market economies. Will Wilkinson, vice-president of the libertarian Niskanen Center, argues that the Left fails to appreciate the important role of markets in producing abundance, and the Right refuses to acknowledge the indispensable role safety nets play in buffering the socially destructive consequences of insecurity.

It’s slow, but perhaps we’re learning…


Research Supports A UBI

During the pandemic, the Biden administration instituted a childcare tax credit. The credit provided families up to $300 per child and broadened eligibility rules. The result? Child poverty rates plummeted.

But as Robert Hubbell, among others, has reported     

Senator Joe Manchin joined with Republicans to kill the childcare tax credit because Manchin reportedly believed that caregivers were using the money to purchase illegal drugs. A new study by the US Census Bureau released on Tuesday reports that child poverty nearly doubled as a result of the termination of benefits by Manchin and the GOP.

An article written by a social worker addressed that widespread, distorted view of poverty and poor people. 

If my decades of work as a social worker taught me one great lesson, it’s this. Poverty is an entrenched system of political choices by self-serving lawmakers, not a personal failing of ordinary people…..

Not one person I’ve ever met wants to be poor, sick, disabled, struggling, or on the receiving end of public assistance programs. These programs are vital but often inadequate and difficult to access…

In 21st-century America, people have to be in extreme hardship to be eligible for help, even as they sometimes work multiple jobs. Not one mother relishes taking three buses in terrible weather to get to the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) office to prove her worthiness to get help buying cereal for her toddler’s breakfast.

While the importance of hard work and individual talent to self-sufficiency shouldn’t be minimized, neither should it be exaggerated. When the focus is entirely upon the individual, when successes of any sort are attributed solely to individual effort, we fail to see the effects of social and legal structures that privilege some groups and impede others. When marginalized groups call attention to additional barriers they face, members of more privileged groups cling even more strongly to the fiction that only individual merit explains success and failure.

Anyone who has studied the issue, even superficially, knows that America’s social safety net is punitive and woefully inadequate. Too much of what we spend on the  patchwork of programs we sneeringly refer to as “welfare” supports a needlessly complicated bureaucracy, rather than the people who desperately need help. (The working poor are basically ineligible.)

Worse still, these various programs are incredibly and arrogantly paternalistic. Bureaucrats–many well-meaning–decide what “those people” need, and legislate accordingly. Don’t buy a steak with those food stamps! Don’t continue to live in that neighborhood–we’ll move you to one we’ve decided is more appropriate. 

If we just gave poor people money, and let them make their own decisions, it would be cheaper– and far more effective.

I have written before–and at length–about the multiple merits of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), and I hope at least a few of you will click through and read that expanded explanation, but today, I want to address the current “system” (note quotation marks) and the very expensive efforts to control what poor folks do with the benefits government provides.

A variety of UBI pilot projects have tested Manchin’s belief that idlers and other “unworthies” would simply use public money for booze or drugs. One such program has reached its halfway point, and its results mirror those of numerous other pilot projects.

Preliminary data is now available showing the effectiveness of guaranteed income as a means of combating poverty in Georgia – slightly more than half the women have saved some money, compared to none at the project’s outset; three times as many women have been able to afford childcare; and the share of women whose cellphone service was interrupted due to unpaid bills dropped from 60 to 40%.

These and other findings come as more than 100 projects centered on giving cash with no restrictions or requirements have started in the last several years, leading a group called Mayors for a Guaranteed Income to launch a nationwide speaking tour in recent weeks, screening a new documentary on these efforts called It’s Basic.

How did the recipients use these “no-strings-attached” funds? Most of the money went to utilities, food and rent. There were other positive effects; program researchers are measuring improved mental health, and researching whether participants are more likely to reach life goals with the help of guaranteed income. 

Even homeless people act responsibly when given money. Washington Post article reported on the results of a Canadian project that provided a lump sum of 7,500 Canadian dollars (about $5,540 today) to 50 people experiencing homelessness in Vancouver. Recipients spent fewer days homeless, increased their savings and put more money toward essentials compared with a control group of 65 people who received no cash transfer. It also saved the government money.

The study, which was published in the peer-reviewed PNAS journal this week, followed individuals for one year after they received the lump sum and reported no increase in spending on what researchers call “temptation goods,” defined as alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. By decreasing time spent in shelters, the intervention led to a decrease in public spending of 777 Canadian dollars (about $574) per person, the paper said.

Furthermore, a robust social safety net supports market economies. As Will Wilkinson, vice-president for policy at the libertarian Niskanen Center, argued in National Review, capitalists and socialists both misunderstand economic reality. The Left fails to appreciate the important role of capitalism and markets in producing abundance, and the Right refuses to acknowledge the indispensable role safety nets play in buffering the socially destructive consequences of insecurity.

Even capitalists would benefit from a simpler, more equitable and more reliable social safety net.


Who Do We Subsidize?

There was a very interesting–and very odd– article in Governing recently, purportedly about means testing.The introductory argument was that our various policies about who we subsidize have resulted in rewarding those who clearly don’t need the particular benefit involved, while failing to help those who definitely do need help.

The lede gives you a hint of the author’s thesis:

When I turned 65, I instantly became eligible to ride on any D.C. Metro train for half-price. Perhaps I ought to have been grateful for this windfall, but in fact I found it annoying. I’m not rich by any means, but I can afford to pay full fare for a subway ride. I didn’t appreciate the idea of charging the taxpayers (myself among them) to give me and countless others a benefit we didn’t need. Warren Buffett can ride on the Metro for half-price if he comes to visit Washington. Stupid is the only word for it.

It isn’t simply kindness to old folks that has pissed him off; he also attacks the exemption for blind people on America’s tax returns. After all, he says, some blind people are wealthy.

It evidently hasn’t occurred to the author that these accommodations may have been intended as a way to show social respect for the elderly, or as a minor compensation for the lack of sight–that they weren’t measures intended to be part of America’s (admittedly inadequate, crazy-quilt) social safety net.

Aside from that somewhat odd introduction, the article didn’t really focus on problems with means testing, which is defined as a determination of eligibility for government assistance based upon the means (income) of the potential recipient. Instead, the article (quite properly) criticizes the way in which many fines are assessed.

A low-income single mother gets stopped for a minor traffic violation, perhaps a broken headlight or an illegal left turn. The fine is a couple of hundred dollars, which is more than she can afford. She is summoned to a court date that she can’t keep because she has to work or care for her children. A few missed court appearances, and she can be sent to jail and/or have her driver’s license suspended, possibly costing her the job she holds and needs to have.

It doesn’t seem fair, does it? A middle-class violator can walk into court, pay the fine and then walk out again. At first glance, it might seem equitable to charge everyone the same $490 for driving alone in a carpool lane (which is what California does). But it isn’t equitable.

The author proposes that, in order to be equitable, fines of this sort should be levied in an amount proportional to what the offender earns in a single day of work. Evidently, other countries do this, and the bulk of the article is an argument for following their example.

It’s a reasonable argument–but it really has nothing to do with means testing or the provision of subsidies–at least, not in the way we usually use those terms.

And that’s too bad, because I’m convinced that policymakers do need to revisit our approach to America’s tattered safety net and the whole concept of means testing, which rests on some deep-seated convictions about “deservingness.” (I once traced that obsession back to England’s 15th Century poor laws, which prohibited giving alms to “sturdy beggars.” The notion that some poor folks are deserving and others are not also has roots in a bastardized Calvinism, an analysis I will spare you…)

This approach to deservingness ignores all manner of structural/systemic inequity. It is also both massively expensive to operationalize and very frequently unfair in application. But aside from all the practical and equitable problems, America’s current approach to social welfare operates to strengthen popular divisions and harmful stereotypes.

Think about it.

I haven’t heard complaints from financially-comfortable Americans that “those people” are getting Social Security. Or that “those people” are driving on roads that I paid for with my tax dollars. I seriously doubt that any of the right-wingers braying about how national health insurance would be “socialism” are refusing to accept their Medicare. As other Western democracies have learned, a universal social benefit is not only less expensive to administer, it is far less socially divisive.

Bottom line: social safety net policy considerations shouldn’t be limited to a single-minded focus on “means,” just as there should be considerations other than uniformity of punishment when we assess fines.

And not so incidentally– policy debates would be  dramaticallyimproved by a more judicious attention to the use of language…


Membership Should Have Its Privileges

Remember that commercial for American Express–the one that emphasized that “membership has its privileges”? Several European countries base their social programs on that theory–being a “member,” or citizen, should carry both benefits and responsibilities. (That belief is evidently why the GOP labels them “socialist.”)

In today’s America, radical Right-wingers are intent upon excluding disfavored minorities from the category of “member,” insisting that only White Christians can be “real Americans”–aka members.

That widespread belief that not everyone is a “member” is one of the central flaws of America’s social welfare system–the emphasis on presumed deservingness. You can see it in the dramatic differences in attitudes about means-tested welfare (negative) versus Social Security and Medicare (positive). When a benefit is universal, it doesn’t exacerbate tribal animosities. I’ve never heard anyone complain that “those people” are driving on roads paid for with my tax dollars!

One of the great virtues of a Universal Basic Income is that it would be universal. Everyone would benefit. Not only would it eliminate the costs of America’s enormous welfare bureaucracy and the manifest inequities and humiliations of the present programs, it would avoid the stereotyping of recipients that characterizes such programs.

Non-profit organizations and foundations are beginning to recognize the structural benefits of what they are calling “targeted universalism.” Nonprofit Quarterly –a highly respected academic journal–has launched a series exploring the concept, which was defined in one article as the recognition that our lives are “lived in a web of opportunity. Only if we address all of the mutually reinforcing constraints on opportunity can we expect real progress.”

While “targeted universalism” is not a call for a UBI, it is a call to approach social problems in a holistic way–to recognize the inter-connectedness of adequate housing, nutrition, transportation, and good schools. Addressing these interrelated issues requires income sufficient for basic subsistence–and some fascinating recent research points to  previously unrecognized benefits of ensuring that subsistence.

Several media outlets have reported on a study showing the effects of a basic income stipend on the development of infants’ cognitive faculties. The following quote is from Forbes (hardly a left-wing publication):

Giving mothers an unconditional cash gift of $333 each month may result in their children displaying increased brain activity, according to a study of 1,000 low-income mother-infant groups published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, reinforcing previous research linking childhood poverty to differences in brain structure and function.

A few cities and states are currently running–or have recently concluded– pilot programs on UBIs and, despite Republican warnings that the funds would subsidize sloth, drug and alcohol use, research has found that the money has gone primarily to food, housing and education.

There are certainly principled arguments and concerns about how a UBI might be structured and funded, but it seems beyond argument that–in addition to its other shortcomings– our current social safety net is exacerbating, rather than ameliorating, civic discord.

What would happen if the United States embraced a new social contract, beginning with the premise that all citizens are valued members of the American polity, and that such membership has its privileges?

Contracts–including social contracts– are by definition mutual undertakings, agreements in which both sides offer consideration. In my imagined “Brave New World,” government would create an environment within which humans could flourish, an environment within which members of the polity would be guaranteed a basic livelihood, access to health care, a substantive education and an equal place at the civic table. In return, members (aka citizens) would pay their “dues:” higher taxes (especially on the obscenely rich), a stint of public/civic service, and the consistent discharge of civic duties like voting and jury service.

In the Brave New World of my imagining, government would provide both physical and a social infrastructure.

Americans are familiar with the elements of the physical infrastructure: streets, roads, bridges, utilities, parks, museums, public transportation, and the like; we might expand the definition to include common government services like police and fire protection, garbage collection and similar necessities and amenities of community life.

The most consequential elements of my imagined social infrastructure– and by far the most difficult to implement–would be national health care and a UBI. Both would require significant changes to some of the deep-seated cultural assumptions on which the current economy rests.

As the libertarian Niskanen Center has shown, if a UBI could be implemented, it would ease economic insecurities, reduce the gap between rich and poor, restore workers’ bargaining power and (not so incidentally) rescue market capitalism from its descent into corporatism and plutocracy.

Membership would have its privileges.

A girl can dream….


That Ambitious ‘Hillbilly’

When Hillbilly Elegy was first published, critics were generally positive. I wasn’t.

Granted, I read only excerpts, which probably made my negative reaction unfair, but the impression I got was of a self-congratulatory “escapee” who’d decided that he’d “made it” largely by reason of his personal virtues, albeit with the help of some immediate family members.

As a few negative reviewers at the time noted,  Vance gave no credit to any of the government programs and/or services– public schools, the GI bill, the public university where he earned his B.A – that facilitated his move out of poverty and into the upper class, and he expressly blamed laziness for the failures of those left behind.  

It was clear that–in his mind– working-class folks were to blame for their own struggles.  

Vance’s focus on personal responsibility was just what opponents of a strong social safety net were looking for, and they hyped the book (and later, the movie.) See–you too can overcome adversity and whatever barriers you face if you just get off your rear end and work hard…

Now, Vance is running for the Senate as a Republican from Ohio. He has already modified his earlier criticism of the former guy, and scrubbed evidence of that criticism from social media, and he has doubled down on his support of what he calls “family values.” Most recently, he criticized prominent Democratic politicians–including Kamala Harris, Corey Booker and Pete Buttigieg– for their childlessness, calling them the “childless left.

He also praised the policies of Viktor Orban, the leader of Hungary, whose government is subsidizing couples who have children, and asked, “Why can’t we do that here?”

The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, who was there, pointed out it was odd that Vance didn’t mention Joe Biden’s newly instituted child tax credit, which will make an enormous difference to many poorer families with children.
It was also interesting that he praised Hungary rather than other European nations with strong pronatalist policies. France, in particular, offers large financial incentives to families with children and has one of the highest fertility rates in the advanced world. So why did Vance single out for praise a repressive, autocratic government with a strong white nationalist bent?

It gets worse. As reported by CityBeat, Vance proposes giving parents additional votes on behalf of their children. He also claims that people without children shouldn’t serve in legislative positions, since–in his weird worldview–they won’t be good at legislating. Especially if they’re Democrats.

“The ‘childless left have no physical commitment to the future of this country,” The Guardian reports Vance as saying during his July 23 address. “Why is this just a normal fact of … life for the leaders of our country to be people who don’t have a personal and direct stake in it via their own offspring?”

It’s hard to assess how much of this is just pandering to the increasingly insane GOP base and how much is authentic Vance, who has clearly imbibed both rightwing beliefs about what Paul Krugman has dubbed “Zombie Family Values” and embraced the GOP’s willingness to substitute child-friendly rhetoric for  even minimal support of policies that would actually help families with children.

Vance reminds me of an extremely libertarian acquaintance of mine who attributes his own success entirely to his own ambition and hard work. He’s a 6’3″ healthy, athletic, straight White male whose parents both graduated from prestigious universities and were able to provide him with a similar, debt-free education. He’s convinced that anyone in America can prosper as he has, without “sucking at the public tit.” He finds the notion that some folks  face barriers that weren’t there for him–and that government might have a role to play in removing those barriers and leveling the playing field a bit–  simply incomprehensible.

“Look at me–I did it all by myself…” was understandable when my three-year-old managed to use a spoon without spilling his soup.

 It’s not an attractive– nor intellectually defensible– attitude in an adult.