This fall, a truck dumped eight million coins outside the Parliament building in Bern, one for every Swiss citizen. It was a publicity stunt for advocates of an audacious social policy that just might become reality in the tiny, rich country. Along with the coins, activists delivered 125,000 signatures — enough to trigger a Swiss public referendum, this time on providing a monthly income to every citizen, no strings attached. Every month, every Swiss person would receive a check from the government, no matter how rich or poor, how hardworking or lazy, how old or young. Poverty would disappear. Economists, needless to say, are sharply divided on what would reappear in its place — and whether such a basic-income scheme might have some appeal for other, less socialist countries too.
Annie Lowrey examines “the basic-income movement” in the NYT Magazine’s economics column this week, which is essentially a movement to give all citizens a small guaranteed salary as a way to eradicate poverty. It’s an idea that is in part supported by both conservatives and liberals. The problem, of course, is figuring out a way to fund it, but in theory, it would “replace welfare, food stamps, housing vouchers and hundreds of other programs, all at once.”
Charles Murray of the conservative American Enterprise Institute likes the idea because it would give money to the poor without much of the government bureaucracy that goes into all the individual programs we have now. His suggestion would be a minimum income of $10,000 a year to any American over the age of 21, who stays out of jail. The left likes the idea, according to Lowrey, as an “an anti-poverty and pro-mobility tool.”
It’s not a brand new idea. In the 1970s, an experimental Canadian Basic income project was tried out in a small town in Canada, and the results appeared positive: Poverty appeared to disappear, high school completion rates went up, and hospitalization rates went down.
It’s an interesting idea—especially in light of stagnating wages and the recent slew of protests and campaigns to raise the minimum wage from workers in low-wage industries like fast food, retail, and as we discussed yesterday, the airline and hotel industry.
Photo: Images Money