Dear Next President,
Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream and a plan. We hear about the dream every year on the holiday that honors his legacy, with replays of his 1963 speech: “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” America “transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.” A nation where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The plan, though, is mostly ignored. King sought to promote justice, freedom, equality, and civil rights by abolishing poverty. In his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, published in 1967, he wrote: “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective—the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
“Widely discussed” was accurate. Leading economists endorsed the idea, including future Nobel laureates Milton Friedman, Paul Samuelson, and James Tobin. Public opinion polls showed majority support. President Lyndon Johnson appointed a national commission that held hearings around the country, and unanimously called for “a new program of income supplementation for all Americans in need.” President Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan passed the House of Representatives by two-to-one, twice. In the Senate, however, extreme liberals and extreme conservatives, for different reasons, joined forces and defeated the moderate supporters.
Basic income is the updated idea, and it’s quite simple. Set an amount, maybe $800 or $1,000 a month, and provide that to every adult citizen. The money comes from cutting programs that become superfluous, welfare, corporate welfare, and crony capitalism, and from simplifying the tax code to eliminate loopholes and deductions that go to special interests. We can adjust the amount occasionally to relieve or prevent inflation, recessions, and associated problems. States and cities can supplement it.
Basic income is a floor, more solid and stable than any safety net. The same amount for everyone: homeless veterans, recent graduates, working parents, and retired grandparents, including CEOs, celebrities, and billionaires. Economic security, guaranteed, plus a baseline of economic justice and economic equality.
Alaskans have had a small basic income, the Permanent Fund Dividend, since 1982, and it’s hugely popular. The amount varies each year; in 2015, it was $2,072. Our federal government has also tested the idea, with a series of Income Maintenance Experiments between 1967 and 1978. Although total work hours declined slightly, that decline was mostly a positive sign. Parents stayed home with their kids; teens stayed in school or went back to school; workers left bad jobs and sought better ones. People chose what was best for them and their families, and similar choices today would be good for our society.
Next president, if you endorse this plan, we can end hunger, end homelessness, end extreme poverty, and we can do that in your first term. You will also be helping unite liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, giving everyone the means and incentives to work together toward real progress on global warming, pollution, immigration, education, racism, and other currently intractable problems.
Yes, some people will waste or squander the money, yet everyone will be better off. We’ll use our basic income to buy homes, start businesses, go back to school, save for retirement, pay off student loans and other debts, and generally pursue our personal dreams and goals. We’ll demand goods and services, and America’s economy will be stronger. Millions of jobs are disappearing due to robots, computers, outsourcing, and related technologies, and a secure basic income will help Americans adapt.
“A host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security,” King wrote. “The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement. … There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum—and livable—income for every American family.”
This is also an idea for you, next mayor, next governor, next legislator, because states and cities can enact local versions of basic income.
Our government has a duty to promote the general welfare, and basic income will do that directly and efficiently. We Americans have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and life requires an income for food, clothes, and shelter at least, a basic income.
Endorse basic income now, next president, and we’ll vote for you. You could win in a landslide.
Steven Shafarman is program director of Basic Income Action, a new nonprofit in Washington, and a life member of the Basic Income Earth Network. His forthcoming book is The Basic Income Imperative: for peace, justice, liberty, and personal dignity.
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Steven Shafarman is program director of Basic Income Action, a new nonprofit in Washington.