Making Our New Guaranteed Income for Kids Permanent is a Real Path to Universal Basic Income (UBI)
“I propose that the Federal government pay a basic income to those American families who cannot care for themselves in whichever State they live.”
That sentence was one of the more surprising things I read when I first started learning about the concept of basic income. Those words were spoken by Richard Nixon on August 11, 1969. Many basic income advocates don’t even know that he did in fact use the phrase, “basic income” half a century ago to describe what he wanted to do as part of his Family Assistance Plan.
His plan though was not what we now refer to as universal/unconditional basic income or UBI. It was a guaranteed income for families, not childless adults, and the more someone earned after their first $60 a month in earned income ($446 in 2021 dollars), the less they got, until they got nothing. And it had a work requirement attached so that parental income was reduced if they refused to work (unless the parent in question was a mom with a child too young for school), but it was truly historic in what it was proposing.
A Republican President of the United States was proposing that poverty should be reduced directly, that the problem was a lack of income, and so more income was the answer. He wanted to guarantee that a family with two parents and two kids would have an income that was not allowed to be lower than $1,600 a year (plus $400 in food vouchers). Today that $1,600 would be equivalent to an annual income of $11,900, which for a family of four is 45% of the federal poverty line based on our current definition of poverty being an income under $26,500 for a household of four.
His plan passed the House in 1970, and passed again in 1971 as that session’s H.R.1, but it never got through the Senate for him to sign. There are multiple reasons why it failed. Among those reasons were that those on the left hated the work requirement and thought the amount was too low, and those on the right didn’t like the idea of so many Amercians getting “free money,” and also more Americans disliked the idea than liked the idea, and racism was certainly part of it for both Democrats and Republicans in the South, but here’s what I want everyone to think harder about right now in 2021: Nixon’s bill was basically just recently signed into law by Joe Biden.
Biden’s new monthly child benefit that just began in July is closer to Nixon’s plan than most people seem to understand. Nixon’s plan intended to provide income to every member of a family with kids. Biden’s plan only provides income to kids, by way of their parent(s). However, because of Nixon’s work requirement, which dropped the parental benefit from $400 to $100 as punishment for not being employed or seeking work, the only ones whose incomes were truly fully guaranteed were kids, and the amount of that guaranteed income per kid in today’s dollars is $250 a month, the same amount that kids ages 6 to 17 just began receiving.
In other words, half a century ago, kids came very close to being guaranteed a minimum monthly income in today’s dollars of $250, and five decades later, kids have finally started getting that money. Regardless of whether their parents work or not, no child in America will now go with less than $250 a month. That is an absolutely historic victory.
With that said, this particular battle has not been won quite yet. As of right now, American kids will only get that income every month until 2022. Biden is now urging Congress to extend that to 2024. Four years of monthly checks is certainly better than six months of monthly checks, but those checks need to be made as permanent as Social Security itself.
I know some of you reading this may not be happy about basic income for kids if you don’t have any kids, but I urge you to consider these checks from the context of Nixon’s plan. Here’s my two cents on America’s failure to pass Nixon’s guaranteed income plan: it was one of the worst failures in the history of the United States Senate. No, it wasn’t a poverty ending amount. Yes, it had a work requirement. No, it wasn’t universal. Yes, it reduced the amount 50 cents for every dollar earned (above $60 a month). But, and this is a huge BUT, it would have set the precedent for an approach to poverty that was centered around getting money to people.
I believe that if we had set that precedent, and taken that approach to poverty over fifty years ago, that there would be no poverty in America today as defined by people living below the federal poverty line. I believe that we would have expanded that cash program into a full UBI by now, and that everyone who complained that it just wasn’t enough was absolutely wrong, and that those who were against “free money” were absolutely wrong, and that these things would already be absolutely obvious to everyone here in 2021 had we passed Nixon’s plan in 1971.
So if you happen to think that a check going out to almost every parent every month for their kids is somehow a bad idea, or a good idea but just not good enough, I urge you to consider an America where Nixon’s plan had passed, and how that would have changed everything.
We have a second chance to win that battle, and yes it’s only a battle, but it’s a big one. We’re talking about reducing child poverty by half, and we’re talking about 69 million kids in America (about 93% of all kids) getting money simply for being alive. This is the setting of that precedent, half a century after it was originally proposed, to recognize that poverty is a lack of income which should be addressed directly by income. If someone is living under the poverty line, then create an income floor under them and raise it to lift them higher.
Fifty years is a long time to wait to guarantee an absolute minimum of income. Let’s not wait any longer. Let’s make the monthly child benefit permanent. Then let’s extend that benefit to all adults of all ages, and in doing so, let’s abolish poverty once and for all.
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