Decent Poverty Report: The Guaranteed Income

Well, folks, here comes the austerity, with asperity. Will the rich, who have gained so disproportionately over the past two decades, shoulder their share of the sacrifice? December's tax debate gave us the answer to that one. How about the military? William Hartung of New America Foundation addressed that one quite lucidly the other day.

I wrote in a previous post that Paul Goodman's 1960s writing and thinking was deeply influenced by the economic conditions of that moment in time—an anomalous moment, as it turned out, since it was the peak of the greatest economic boom in U.S. history. These days, the political discourse is making contrary assumptions—it's obvious that things are bad and we're all assuming they're going to get much worse. The federal budget discussion, and Wisconsin, reveal these grim premises (or gleeful ones, if you're a Republican) all too clearly.

So it's refreshing to read sixties-era Goodman and see the rather expansive underlying notions of what's possible. With his anarchist attitude, Goodman rarely had anything good to say about existing government programs. Nor, to be honest, could he find much to praise in many of the solutions proffered by the left. And his own policy ideas (packaged in the 1962 book Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals) tended to sound so off-the-wall that even when you were convinced of their merits it was hard to conceive of them coming to pass in the real world.

But there was one economic reform he was unabashedly for: the guaranteed annual income. In this scheme, the government would supply every American family an economic floor; those whose work income didn't reach the threshold would be paid the difference. This proposal squared perfectly with Goodman's concept that decent poverty should be possible in a decent society. Here's how he put it at a 1967 conference on rural poverty in Knoxville, Tennessee:
In the first place, I'm for the annual income. Probably because it puts more money in poor people's pockets which is always a nice thing. You know, the chief defect of the poor is that they don't have money. But I am even more interested in it because it allows for the development of small cooperative enterprise. A number of people want to go into a business. Now you can't risk the little money you have, if you know that is going to be the end. But if there is a guaranteed income, and you know you have to be a little badly off for the next period, then you'll be back on keel a little after that, there's a great opportunity to pool that little income you have with other people and start some business.
Leave it to Paul Goodman to take one of the most socialistic of all welfare programs and present it as a boon to entrepreneurship!

Goodman was hardly a lone voice on this issue. He dovetails here with Martin Luther King, Jr., who, toward the end of his majestic final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), singles out the guaranteed income above other progressive goals as the simplest, most direct, and therefore most effective means to confront the nation's most pressing problems.

Actually, although nothing like the guaranteed income ever materialized in the USA, it's pretty surprising how far the idea got. At a certain point in the late sixties the idea had some serious bipartisan support. President Richard Nixon's Family Assistance Plan, proposed under the influence of his aide Daniel P. Moynihan, passed the House twice, in 1970 and 1971, but in the process of concocting a compromise version that could get through the Senate, the bill lost support from both the left and the right.

MLK pegged his argument for the guaranteed income, as he usually pegged his arguments, in terms of deep morality. He must have realized that the idea went against the American grain, but he believed that if Americans were, or could become, humane enough to transcend racial prejudice, they could transcend class prejudice too:
Earlier in this century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual's abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber.

We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind motivation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will.
King's got his finger on the key problem here, but events seem to have proven his viewpoint too sanguine. As Brian Steensland argues in his history of the guaranteed income, The Failed Welfare Revolution (2007), the real reason why it was a failed revolution wasn't economic but cultural. In the end, the idea was just too radically humane for a society in which the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism are still the official story. The guaranteed income framework just didn't stigmatize poor people enough, nor did it make a sharp enough distinction between the worthy and the unworthy, the hard-working and the lazy. Americans just didn't buy it—not even the ones who would have benefited the most from it, the working poor. It smelled like welfare, and they didn't want welfare.

So the proposal sank in the ideological confusion of the Nixon years. The Carter administration tried to float the idea again, but it didn't get traction, and Reagan killed it off—and then some—with his "welfare queen" rhetoric. Now, in this age of austerity politics and its blinkered, compromised ethics, can we preserve the vision that a minimum level of economic security is every American's birthright? Can we imagine a discourse that generous?