Social Mobility Memos

Money for nothing: Why a universal basic income is a step too far

Isabel V. Sawhill

The idea of a universal basic income (UBI) is certainly an intriguing one, and has been gaining traction. Swiss voters just turned it down. But it is still alive in Finland, in the Netherlands, in Alaska, in Oakland, CA, and in parts of Canada.

Advocates of a UBI include Charles Murray on the right and Anthony Atkinson on the left. This surprising alliance alone makes it interesting, and it is a reasonable response to a growing pool of Americans made jobless by the march of technology and a safety net that is overly complex and bureaucratic. A comprehensive and excellent analysis in The Economist points out that while fears about technological unemployment have previously proved misleading, “the past is not always a good guide to the future.”

Hurting the poor

Robert Greenstein argues, however, that a UBI would actually hurt the poor by reallocating support up the income scale. His logic is inescapable: either we have to spend additional trillions providing income grants to all Americans or we have to limit assistance to those who need it most. 

One option is to provide unconditional payments along the lines of a UBI, but to phase it out as income rises. Libertarians like this approach since it gets rid of bureaucracies and leaves the poor free to spend the money on whatever they choose, rather than providing specific funds for particular needs. Liberals fear that such unconditional assistance would be unpopular and would be an easy target for elimination in the face of budget pressures. Right now most of our social programs are conditional. With the exception of the aged and the disabled, assistance is tied to work or to the consumption of necessities such as food, housing, or medical care, and our two largest means-tested programs are Food Stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The case for paternalism

Liberals have been less willing to openly acknowledge that a little paternalism in social policy may not be such a bad thing. In fact, progressives and libertarians alike are loath to admit that many of the poor and jobless are lacking more than just cash. They may be addicted to drugs or alcohol, suffer from mental health issues, have criminal records, or have difficulty functioning in a complex society. Money may be needed but money by itself does not cure such ills.

A humane and wealthy society should provide the disadvantaged with adequate services and support. But there is nothing wrong with making assistance conditional on individuals fulfilling some obligation whether it is work, training, getting treatment, or living in a supportive but supervised environment.

In the end, the biggest problem with a universal basic income may not be its costs or its distributive implications, but the flawed assumption that money cures all ills.