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Synthesis/Regeneration 21   (Winter 2000)

What Should We Guarantee, and How?

by Steven Shafarman, DC Statehood Green Party

For an effective social safety net, most people think government has to guarantee jobs, wages, incomes, or all three. Each offers a good slogan, at least, but is more complex than it appears. Examining these policies and their histories may suggest ways to refine one or all, thereby helping Greens and other progressives strategize and succeed.

Whatever occurs with jobs or wages, income guarantees of some type are necessary because there are and always will be people who do not work. Reasons may involve age, disability, lack of education or opportunity, or laziness. Regardless, if families, churches, or charity organizations fail to provide food and shelter, government must. Guaranteed incomes would be much simpler and more reliable than the current hodgepodge of welfare programs.

...income guarantees of some type are necessary because there are and always will be people who do not work.

The idea of a guaranteed income has a long and illustrious history. An early advocate was Thomas Paine. In 1796, he proposed a "national fund" that would unconditionally pay an equal share to every adult citizen: "It's not a charity, but a right I'm pleading for." The progressive populist movements of the 1880s and '90s were provoked by guaranteed income ideas in Henry George's Progress and Poverty and Edward Bellamy's novel Looking Backward, each of which sold millions of copies. What sparked the creation of Social Security in 1935 was the Townsend Plan to provide seniors with an income of $200 monthly. During the same period, between 7 and 8 million people joined "Share-Our-Wealth," Huey Long's movement that promised $2,500 each year to every family.

In the 1960s, supporters of a guaranteed income included Milton Friedman, James Tobin, Paul Samuelson, John Kenneth Galbraith, and other renowned economists. Martin Luther King Jr. believed this would bring a "genuine revolution in values" and enable us to solve race-related problems and achieve world peace. A national commission—leaders from business, academia, and organized labor, appointed by Lyndon Johnson—held hearings around the country and unanimously recommended the idea. Politician advocates included Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Richard Nixon.

The House of Representatives passed Nixon's Family Assistance Plan on April 16, 1970, by a margin of almost 2-to-1. Polls showed that most Americans favored the plan, as did major newspapers. But it was defeated in the Senate Finance Committee due to conservative maneuvers that Moynihan described in a 1973 book, The Politics of a Guaranteed Income.

Guaranteed Jobs

With the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt declared government to be "the employer of last resort." This became the rationale for government programs to create jobs. Prior to this, however, and throughout most of America's history, many state governments created jobs by giving land to people willing to settle and farm. The first homestead plan, in Virginia, was proposed by Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln signed the National Homestead Act in 1862. Homesteads continued to be available until the early 1900s.

...struggles to guarantee jobs or wages are sure to be difficult, and even if successful may provide only temporary benefits for relatively few workers...

Today, after several decades of attacks by conservatives, it is no longer considered acceptable for government to create jobs directly. Government has instead become the promoter of the private sector. When Democrats and Republicans talk about creating jobs, they are usually proposing tax breaks and subsidies to corporations. Job training programs indirectly subsidize the corporations that are future employers.

Progressives who support job creation have to specify jobs that provide public benefits such as rebuilding communities or restoring our environment. But specificity invites government micro-management and incites free market fundamentalists.

Guaranteed Wages

The New Deal also brought the first minimum wage laws, and the start of regular battles about increases. Now some progressives are promoting a "living wage" that would guarantee to municipal employees, at least, wages sufficient for them to live in the communities where they work. Proponents maintain that this will also pressure private employers to pay more. As a precedent for living wages, one might cite Henry Ford's insight that his factories could not profit if workers were unable to afford the cars they produced, and his subsequent commitment to higher pay. Similarly, the health and vitality of our communities will gain from living wages or related guarantees.

But corporations can relocate. With global economic competition, especially during economic setbacks, job or wage promises sometimes become worthless. Workers can be cruelly disappointed.

An Updated Guaranteed Income Proposal

Because struggles to guarantee jobs or wages are sure to be difficult, and even if successful may provide only temporary benefits for relatively few workers, it seems sensible to focus on guaranteed incomes. The proved popularity of previous proposals suggests that a revised version could quickly gain widespread support. Government would resume its true and proper role as the protector of individual citizens.

Because the defeat of Nixon's plan was enabled and engineered by its complexity, an updated proposal should be kept simple. Suppose each citizen is guaranteed an income sufficient for food and shelter. Everyone age 18 or over could receive the same amount, "Citizens' Dividends," regardless of health, employment, family situation, or where or how one lives. Here are some other features and benefits:

In the 1960s, conservatives objected to "giving people something for nothing." Suppose everyone performs some "Citizens' Service," perhaps eight hours each month, as the "work" one does to earn Citizens' Dividends. Citizens' Service might appeal especially to the many politicians and other public figures who praise and promote volunteerism. With Citizens' Dividends it should be much easier than today for poorer people to afford the time to serve. If individuals are free to choose when, where, and how to serve, everyone should be able to find some service that is practical and meaningful.

This combination of Citizens' Service and Citizens' Dividends is "Citizens' Policies."

More Potential Benefits

Citizens' Policies would remind each of us monthly that we are all stakeholders. People who know themselves to be stakeholders are likely also to be voters. This could therefore be the key to progress on taxes, health care, education, campaign finance reform, and other issues or problems.

And Greens might remind voters of the 1960s—how moderates from both major parties favored some form of guaranteed income.

Today, the main obstacle to progress on almost every issue or problem is political pressure to create jobs. With basic economic security guaranteed by Citizens' Dividends, people can find or create their own jobs. There would no longer be this rationale for corporate welfare, excess defense spending, or other activities that exploit people, communities, or nature.

To reduce air pollution and global warming, higher fossil fuel taxes appear to be necessary. Currently, increasing fuel taxes would cause inflation or recession and be especially hard on poorer people. All such problems could be prevented or relieved with Citizens' Dividends, which might be increased along with fuel taxes. Increasing fossil fuel taxes may also be the quickest and most effective way to reduce traffic congestion and urban sprawl, thereby helping simultaneously to improve our cities and to save forests, farmlands, wetlands, and the threatened or endangered species that inhabit them.

Racism, gender discrimination, and related cultural problems are usually confounded with economic interests. Citizens' Policies would help level the social and economic playing fields, would ensure that everyone can at least join the game. We could begin immediately to make real, lasting progress.

The economic security of Citizens' Dividends would reduce the financial desperation that is the motive for most robberies, burglaries, prostitution, dealing of illegal drugs, etc.

Regarding crime and justice: The option of deducting from Citizens' Dividends for fines or penalties should make it mostly unnecessary to imprison people for nonviolent crimes. This would open up adequate prison space for violent criminals to serve their full sentences, eliminating the rationale for building more prisons. The economic security of Citizens' Dividends would reduce or relieve the financial desperation that is the motive for most robberies, burglaries, prostitution, dealing of illegal drugs, etc. And people could perform their Citizens' Service through jury duty, neighborhood watch programs, or other crime prevention activities.

Political Prospects and Strategies

The funds for Citizens' Dividends would come from reducing or eliminating current government programs. The simple design should facilitate the compromises necessary for implementation. Fiscal conservatives will probably want the amount to be quite low, perhaps $300 each month. Liberals might argue for $500 or $600 to insure that parents can support their children. States or cities with high costs of living could provide supplements.

Imagine a three-way election between a Democrat, a Republican, and a Green advocate of Citizens' Policies. Traditionally, Democrats emphasize social and economic justice. Republicans want tax cuts, a smaller federal government, and the return of power to states, cites, communities, individuals. All of these goals would be better served by Citizens' Policies than conventional approaches. Greens could thus appeal powerfully to all constituencies. And Greens might remind voters of the 1960s—how moderates from both major parties favored some form of guaranteed income.

Now, with the supposedly strong economy—yet with our political system failing to respond to serious social, cultural, and environmental problems, and with enormous gaps in wealth and income—is an ideal opportunity for Greens and other progressives to unite.

If we truly want a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, then we the people have to demand it. Citizens' Policies provide a way: to engage all Americans, to encourage us to work together, and to empower us as individuals and collectively. Let us be bold.

This is adapted from a forthcoming book, Healing Politics: Citizens' Policies and the Pursuit of Happiness. Steven Shafarman lives in Washington, DC. email shafarman@earthlink.net

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