Tag Archives: poverty

And How About That Budget?

Once upon a time, when self-righteous folks made speeches about their deep levels of concern about this or that issue, skeptical listeners would respond by telling the speaker to “put your money where your mouth is.” That rejoinder reflected a widely-held recognition that talk is cheap—that a person’s real priorities could only be determined by examining the level at which one “walked the walk,” including where a person put his or her money.

There are many differences between government budgets and personal ones, but there is also one undeniable similarity: you can determine governments’ priorities by following the money, by seeing what measures and programs public officials want to fund—or defund.

For example, the GOP’s persistent efforts to defund Planned Parenthood are entirely consistent with its belief that male dominance should take priority over women’s health.

Donald Trump has sent his preferred budget to Congress, which will have the last word on expenditures, and we can be sure that the budget that emerges (assuming one does) will differ significantly from its current form. That said, there is significant Republican support for the President’s priorities in this Congress, and those priorities should appall anyone who actually cares about poor or middle-class Americans–or the future of the planet.

The President is advocating enormous increases for America’s already bloated defense budget, at the expense of widely valued programs like the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Legal Services, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, among many others.

The Corporation for National and Community Service promotes volunteerism in distressed communities, and provides college stipends for those who serve those communities. Legal Services—already inadequately funded—provides critically important legal assistance to people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer to fight predatory lenders and slum landlords, get divorced, or access Medicaid and Medicare, food stamps and other benefits to which they are entitled.

Much sarcasm is generated by the periodic efforts to “save Big Bird,” but public broadcasting and the Endowments for the Arts and Humanities bring unbiased news, cultural events and civic conversations to citizens who would not otherwise have the opportunity to explore those perspectives.

It’s hard to look at this budget without seeing a deliberate effort to kick people when they’re already down,an effort to further impoverish the people who are most disadvantaged by depriving them of everything from legal assistance, to heat in the winter, to educational entertainment.

Trump’s proposed budget also cuts funding to the Environmental Protection Agency by nearly a third; and eliminates support for climate change research as “a waste of taxpayer money.”

It is difficult to understand this Administration’s wholesale rejection of science and climate change as anything other than a cynical subsidy to the bottom lines of fossil fuel companies. The environmental dangers of this assault have been widely discussed, but its cynical subtext has not: the effects of environmental degradation will fall first—and hardest–on poor Americans.

Flint, Michigan is hardly the only disadvantaged community with contaminated water.

Nor would polluted water be the only likely result of the savage cuts to EPA programs: there is likely to be a return of the smog and poor air quality that once characterized our urban areas, and fewer efforts to eliminate lead in the soil and house paint in older, more deteriorated neighborhoods.

This budget rewards the privileged with tax credits while waging war on the people least well-equipped to fight. It is an exercise in cruelty, not to mention stupidity—a short-term political map to long-term disaster.

Following the money in this budget leads directly to dystopia.





Those Pesky Facts

One of my earliest research projects when I entered academia focused on an element of the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996,”  (PRWORA) aka welfare reform. I looked at the consequences of the measure’s invitation to (undefined) Faith-Based Organizations to help government agencies provide welfare services.

Needless to say, the “armies of compassion” envisioned by George W. Bush failed to materialize, since the invitation was based largely on fanciful–indeed, “faith-based”–beliefs about the capacities of the invitees.

I mention this in order to explain my heightened interest in a recent “spat” between Peter the Citizen and Arthur Brooks.

In “The Dignity Deficit: Reclaiming Americans’ Sense of Purpose,” Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), emphasizes the importance of work requirements for welfare programs and suggests that the 1996 welfare reform law provides a model for other safety net programs:

Putting more people to work must also become an explicit aim of the social safety net. Arguably, the greatest innovation in social policy in recent history was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The PRWORA, which became synonymous with the phrase “welfare reform,” made several major changes to federal policy. It devolved greater flexibility to the states but established new constraints, such as a limit on how long someone could receive federal welfare benefits and a work requirement for most able-bodied adults.

As Peter points out, PRWORA changed a number of programs, but what Brooks is lauding is TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Peter, like Brooks, is a political conservative; he was a  former member of the Reagan Administration whose “portfolio” was welfare programs.
And he begs to differ.

For the past two years, I have been writing papers as a citizen to highlight TANF’s many problems. My hope is that conservatives will adopt more “rigor” in their assessment of the 1996 law and use evidence rather than ideology in developing reform proposals.

Brooks claims that TANF reduced poverty, and that its “lessons” about “the dignity of work” should be extended to other poverty programs. Peter convincingly demolishes the first assertion, and provides copious data to prove his point. Although he clearly agrees that there are “lessons” to be learned,  the content of those lessons differs significantly from what Brooks suggests.  I really encourage readers to click through and read the entire paper. The exchange illustrates the difference between ideology and intellectual integrity–between seeing what you want to see and seeing what the evidence shows.

What really caught my eye, however, were the following observations (emphasis mine):

TANF’s block grant structure creates a situation in which states don’t have the resources to run meaningful welfare-to-work programs, as the amount is not adjusted for inflation or demographic changes. This problem is exacerbated when state politicians divert scarce funds to plug budget holes….

In fiscal year (FY) 2015, just 25 percent of TANF funds were used to provide basic cash assistance and just 7 percent were for work-related activities, despite the fact that the number of poor families with children was higher in 2015 than in 1996. In many states, TANF has become a slush fund used to supplant state spending and fill budget holes…

Since TANF’s inception, states have used tens of billions of federal TANF dollars to simply replace existing state spending. For example, Jon Peacock of the Wisconsin Budget Project explains how “a significant portion of the federal funding for … assistance is being siphoned off for use elsewhere in the budget, to the detriment of the Wisconsin Works (W-2) program and child care subsidies for low-income working families.” It would be one thing if poverty had declined in Wisconsin since TANF’s enactment, but the poverty rate for children in Wisconsin grew from 14.3 percent in 1997 to 18.4 percent in 2011. If the supplanted funds were used to fund other programs for poor families, the practice would be less harmful, but that doesn’t seem to be what happens in Wisconsin. According to Peacock, “That shell game uses TANF funds to free up state funds [general purpose revenue] (GPR) to use for other purposes, such as the proposed income tax cuts.”

Trump’s budget–which combines utter fantasy with gratuitous cruelty (eliminating Meals on Wheels!?)– contains deep cuts to Medicaid and proposes to  fund what’s left through block grants, facilitating–and probably ensuring– precisely the sort of “shell game” that the states have played with TANF.

Anyone who thinks that the monies sent to the states via Medicaid block grants would all be applied to the costs of providing medical care for poor people is smoking something, and it’s hallucinogenic.




Another Unequal New Year?

This is the last day of 2016, a year that most definitely will not be missed. It’s hard to know whether people of good will can make 2017 any better.

The United States will begin the new year by ushering in a President who promises to “make America great again.” Unfortunately, with every utterance and tweet, it becomes more obvious that his definition of “greatness” is an autocratic wet dream unconnected to either the common good or reality.

As discouraging as it may be to admit, the truth is that a significant percentage of the American public is equally delusional, especially when it comes to accurate assessments of the extent of current inequality, and America’s past economic “greatness.”

A 2015 article in Scientific American took a look at both myth and reality. It was titled “American Inequality: It’s Much Worse Than You Think,” and subtitled, “The great divide between our beliefs, our ideals, and reality.”

The average American believes that the richest fifth own 59% of the wealth and that the bottom 40% own 9%. The reality is strikingly different. The top 20% of US households own more than 84% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% combine for a paltry 0.3%. The Walton family, for example, has more wealth than 42% of American families combined.

Remember this infographic video that went viral several months ago? According to the article, it has been watched more than 16 million times.  I was one of those who was shocked by the distribution of wealth it showed, and I actually follow these matters fairly closely.

The great virtue of the Scientific American article, however, was not in schooling readers about the present chasm between the rich and the rest; it was in puncturing our ahistorical and fanciful belief that in America, success is an artifact of effort and hard work, that anyone willing to invest the necessary grit and determination can “make it,” and that American meritocracy means that entrepreneurial workers are not doomed to remain in whatever poverty or class they are born to.

It’s a lovely belief. The brutal reality, however, is very different.

In a study published early in 2015,

researchers found Americans overestimate the amount of upward social mobility that exists in society. They asked some 3,000 people to guess the chance that someone born to a family in the poorest 20% ends up as an adult in the richer quintiles. Sure enough, people think that moving up is significantly more likely than it is in reality. Interestingly, poorer and politically conservative participants thought that there is more mobility than richer and liberal participants…. We may not want to believe it, but the United States is now the most unequal of all Western nations. To make matters worse, America has considerably less social mobility than Canada and Europe.

This belief in American economic mobility doesn’t simply ignore the immense importance of family wealth and social connections, access to educational equality, and a wide range of discriminatory obstacles and structural social barriers.

Our stubborn belief in an American economic mobility that doesn’t exist creates an unwarranted optimism—an optimism that, ironically, is more prevalent among those at the bottom of the income distribution. And because we are optimistic—because we see opportunities that aren’t really there—we don’t get serious about correcting the social and financial structures that keep poor people poor.

The people who agreed with Trump that America was “great” at some indeterminate point in the past but is no longer so blessed seem to fall into two not mutually exclusive categories: those who resent the advancements of women, people of color and immigrants (America was great when “they” knew their place); and those who believe the mythology of a “lost” American mobility.

What would be great would be to make 2017 the year we began to restore content to our belief in American mobility and civic equality. A girl can dream….

Happy New Year.






Meanwhile, Back Home in Indiana….

It’s admittedly hard to take our eyes off the monumental train wreck in the nation’s capital, with each day bringing additional evidence that America as we have known it is being systematically dismantled– but things aren’t so reassuring on the home front, either.

The newly energized wing-nuts who populate our state legislature are proposing bills to criminalize abortion and allow unrestricted, unlicensed gun ownership. (“Step right up, ladies, gentlemen, psychopaths, domestic batterers… Here’s a lethal weapon for you, no questions asked…”)

Of course, Hoosiers are used to seeing our state lawmakers focus on social issues at the expense of humdrum things like infrastructure repair and job creation. In Indiana, it is at the municipal level, in the cities, where the genuine work of government must be done.

Case in point: The Indiana Business Journal recently reported on the extent of poverty that co-exists with the more visible prosperity in the City of Indianapolis.

  • From 2000 to 2014, the percentage of the population below the poverty level swelled 80 percent, from 11.9 percent to 21.4 percent.
  • From 1999 to 2014, inflation-adjusted household incomes fell at least 10 percent in 75 percent of the city’s census tracts. Inflation-adjusted incomes fell at least 30 percent in 48 percent of the tracts. In contrast, only 5.9 percent of tracts reported an increase in inflation-adjusted household incomes.

As the IBJ editorialized, addressing our pockets of poverty will take a concerted push and the involvement of many stakeholders in business, education, government and the not-for-profit community.

As the editorial also noted, that involvement–and that stakeholder collaboration–is underway. Mayor Hogsett’s initiative, EmployIndy, is focusing on assisting low- and mid-skilled workers with a mix of job training and career planning that should improve their employment prospects . The Central Indiana Community Partnership is increasing the reach of Ascend Indiana, an initiative that connects employers with skilled workers and helps with training to provide workers with those needed skills.

Then there’s the recently approved transit referendum—which clears the way for the City-County Council to impose an income tax to improve bus service. Right now, only 33 percent of Marion County jobs can be reached via transit in 90 minutes—a huge impediment to improving the job prospects of the unemployed and underemployed.

I don’t have a crystal ball, so I will refrain from predicting the success or failure of this coordinated effort, but I will state what should be obvious: this is the way issues are addressed in a rational society.

The nature and extent of a problem should be established by credible research. Research and analysis should identify barriers to solving the problem–in this case, inadequate education or skills, lack of transportation to job sites, and lack of access to information about jobs. Co-ordinated public and private efforts should then be directed at removing the identified barriers.

This approach relies upon a consensus that poverty negatively affects everyone in a community, not just those who are in need, and upon a recognition that there are no magic bullets or bumper-sticker solutions–that ameliorating poverty will take time, resources and hard work.

What a contrast to the approaches being promoted by the “lunatic caucuses” of both the U.S. Congress and Indiana Statehouse, and by the incoming Executive branch clown show. Both are populated by people who consider research “elitist” and knowledge unnecessary, who prefer privatizing/contracting out to the hard work required by partnerships with responsible private-sector organizations, and who consistently privilege ideology over evidence.

We have spoiled toddlers running state and federal offices, but at least adults run the cities.

Back Home in Indiana

As critical as this year’s Presidential and Senate races are, people will also vote on Tuesday for important state offices. Here in Indiana, the Republican candidate for Governor has doubled down on Mike Pence’s policies, especially his insistence that “the gays” don’t need no damn civil rights protections. He has also parroted Pence’s rosy, fact-free evaluation of Indiana’s economy.

Last Wednesday, I spoke about Indiana’s appalling levels of poverty and inequality to members of Shepherd’s Center at North United Methodist Church. I have shared much of the information in this speech previously on this blog, but it might be well to review what the data reveals about economic and human conditions in the Hoosier State in advance of Tuesday’s election. Here, then, is the text of that speech.


I was asked to talk today about the United States’ growing problem with income inequality. There’s a lot to talk about—more than we have time for—because the causes and the consequences of growing inequality are complex and very troubling.

In 2007, I wrote a book called God and Country, in which I examined the religious roots of ostensibly secular policy preferences—things like climate change, foreign policy and economic systems. It was when researching that book that I came to appreciate the longstanding effect of Calvinism on American attitudes toward income inequality.

As I wrote in that book, the theological belief that arguably had the greatest effect on colonial economic activity was the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which held that God had decided the ultimate fate of each person at the moment of creation. Predestination included the belief that the faithful discharge of one’s calling—the diligence with which a person worked– was evidence of the depth and sincerity of that person’s faith. Predestination, especially when coupled with the doctrine of original sin, convinced believers that the suffering of the poor must be intended by God as a spur to their repentance.

In other words, the poor were poor for a reason, and helping them escape poverty might actually thwart God’s will.

The belief that people are poor because they are somehow morally defective wasn’t universal, but it was widespread–and   that suspicion of poverty, that belief that poor people are somehow lacking in moral fiber or responsible for their own condition, has profoundly influenced American culture. Understanding that attitude about poverty is central to any effort to understand today’s arguments about income inequality.

There are cultural attitudes, and then there are facts. The facts are that, aside from children, the elderly and the disabled, poverty in the United States is experienced primarily by the working poor. Most poor people in the U.S. work forty or more hours a week; they simply don’t make enough money to live.

Let’s look at Indiana. ALICE is an acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. According to the United Way, ALICE families are those with income above federal poverty levels, but below what it actually costs to live in their communities. In Indiana, 36% of all households live below the ALICE threshold. About 14% are below the poverty level. To put that another way, there are 908,000 households in Indiana that cannot make ends meet. I want to emphasize: these are families and individuals with jobs, and most of them don’t qualify for social services or income supports.

The United Way’s ALICE report calculates the cost of living for each county, and takes differences in cost of living into account. In Marion County, a single individual living needs $18, 396 a year, or 9.20 an hour, to survive; a family with two adults, an infant and a preschooler needs $51, 972, or 25.99 an hour. In Indiana, 68% of jobs pay less than $20/hour, and three-quarters of those pay less than $15/hour.

If you are interested in learning more about ALICE families and their demographics, I encourage you to go to the website of the Indiana Association of United Ways and access the entire report. It’s an eye-opener.

As long as we are talking about Indiana, let me share some additional statistics, courtesy of the Indiana Institute for Working Families:

  • Indiana has a “jobs deficit” of 108,400—that’s the number of additional jobs we need due to population growth
  • The Annie E. Casey Foundation ranks Indiana 30th in child well-being—we’ve slipped two slots since 2014.
  • With respect to the status of women, Indiana ranks dead last overall. We are 39th in women’s employment and earnings, and 37th in poverty and opportunity.
  • Indiana’s minimum wage is not sufficient to support even a single adult in any county in the state, but Indiana’s legislature refuses to raise the wage and prohibits cities and counties from doing so. The state has ranked 38th in personal income for the past three years, and 33d in income growth last year. Even accounting for our relatively low cost of living, personal income in the state is 5.5 points below the national average. We have the tenth most regressive state tax system and the 2d highest sales tax.
  • Looking at inequality, rather than just poverty, people in the top 1% in Indiana make on average $717,688 a year, or about 16.5 times the state’s average income of $43,426. The much-hyped 2013 tax cut saved the wealthiest Hoosiers an average of $1181 and the lowest-income Hoosiers an average of $10 each.

If over a third of Indiana households can’t make ends meet, there must be programs to help them bridge the gap, right?

Wrong. In fact, the number of households receiving government aid—what most of us call welfare—totaled about 9,000 families in 2014—and emergency payments from local welfare offices like the Township Trustees actually declined by 13%.

Just to sum up: the total gap between sufficiency and actual income—that is, the amount of money that would be needed every year to bring all Hoosier households up to the ALICE threshold—was $34.2 billion in 2014. Those households earned $15.8 billion. They received $15.1 billion in combined charity and government assistance. That left a gap of $3.3 billion dollars. It would take 3.3 billion dollars of additional wages or government welfare or charitable support to bring all Indiana families up to subsistence.

The numbers are staggering, but they only tell part of the story. The human costs of poverty and inequality to both individuals and society are immense. A White House study released in May of this year found that raising the minimum wage reduces crime by 3 to 5 percent. Education research has demonstrated that poor classroom performance is affected more by poverty than any other factor. There are a number of other social pathologies that are caused or exacerbated by poverty.

Speaking of education—Awhile back, the Washington Post’s Wonkblog reported on an experiment in Ft. Lauderdale that holds so many lessons—not just about inequality, but about institutional and unintentional racism, the waste of human capital, and the human difficulty of seeing things that lie outside more comfortable worldviews.

In 2003, the head of the school system’s gifted program asked her staff to make a map showing where every gifted student lived in Broward County, Fla. She called the result an “atlas of inequality.” All of the then-identified gifted students were from the suburbs and wealthier communities, where parents were more involved in education. The map was virtually void in other areas.

The map convinced the district to work harder to identify gifted children from impoverished areas, and in 2005, it began giving a short test to all students in the second grade. Children who scored well on the test were then evaluated to determine whether they should be enrolled in the system’s gifted program. The district ended up identifying an additional 300 gifted children between 2005 and 2006—and 80 percent more black students and 130 percent more Hispanic students entered gifted programs in third grade.

The school district had previously relied upon referrals by teachers—a system used by many, if not most, school districts around the country. (Not, I am pleased to report, in IPS, which uses a system similar to the one now used in Ft. Lauderdale.) And that’s the problem: those programs amplify inequality because they disproportionately recruit children from high-income families — another example of how opportunity accrues to those who are already privileged.

This is how systemic bias operates. People who dismiss the notion of structural racism or advantage do so because they see bias as intentional, and success or failure solely as a measure of individual effort and/or merit. (Calvinism again!) They look around and no one is burning a cross on that black family’s lawn, or otherwise displaying hurtful antisocial behavior, so they draw the not-unreasonable (albeit inaccurate) conclusion that bias is absent.

The Ft. Lauderdale teachers who failed to identify precocious poor children weren’t bigots—they wouldn’t have been in those classrooms, working with poor children, if they were. But like most of us, they’d been socialized to connect intellectual capacity to certain markers of behavior—markers that children from disadvantaged families are less likely to exhibit.

A similar phenomenon occurs when businesses have job openings. Positions tend to be filled through “networking.” The word gets out to people already in those networks, who mention the opportunity to their friends, and to people with whom they feel comfortable. People who look and sound and act like them. It isn’t intentionally nefarious—it’s human. It’s the way the world works.

But in the aggregate, these otherwise innocent social networks operate to keep advantage where it is, and to exclude access to those whose talents and abilities are less recognized, because they are expressed differently. There are the “old boy’s networks” that continue to constrain women’s progress, the continuing friendships of alumni from elite schools disproportionately populated by the offspring of wealthy families, and the many other “communities of interest”—professional or social—where, as the old saying goes, “birds of a feather flock together.”

America cannot afford to lose the contributions of talented citizens simply because that talent comes from unfamiliar places.

Poverty and inequality also have society-wide economic ramifications. Research studies confirm that economic inequality and economic growth are inversely related.  Economies with less inequality grow more strongly than those with more.

When you think about it, this makes sense. The American economy relies on consumer demand to fuel economic growth. Moderate levels of inequality don’t matter, so long as there is a sufficiently large middle-class with sufficient disposable income to spend. So long as those with less still have “enough”–defined as income left over after life’s necessities have been covered–and so long as they continue to purchase goods and services with that income—the economy can be expected to grow.

However, when the distribution curb is what economists describe as “bimodal,” with lots of people barely eking out a living and a few others sitting on piles of money, the economic picture changes. The poor have little or no disposable income with which to purchase goods and services, and the rich can meet their needs and desires without depleting a significant portion of their assets. (For that matter, there aren’t enough rich people to drive economic growth, even if they spent lavishly.)

When people don’t buy, manufacturers don’t make. When manufacturers don’t make, they don’t hire workers (or keep the ones they have). Retailers close or downsize. Eventually, the assets held by the 1% lose their value, which is why the politics of greed are so shortsighted.

There is another consequence when the degree of inequality reaches or exceeds levels seen during the Gilded Age—as it is now. That consequence is social and political instability. Political scientists tell us that countries with deep divisions between rich and poor experience mass upheavals and various social pathologies. A wealthy friend of mine once remarked that he’d prefer paying higher taxes to watching angry mobs take to the streets, or worrying about someone kidnapping his children for ransom.

We are already seeing significant evidence of social discontent from young people who see income inequality as profoundly immoral—especially in a country that maintains a huge and expensive military, and lavishes gigantic salaries on the so-called “banksters” and others in the 1%. There was a reason so many young people flocked to the message and campaign of Bernie Sanders.

A lawyer I worked with once told me there is really only one question, legal or otherwise: what should we do? If poverty and income inequality are as corrosive to our social fabric and political health as most observers think they are, how can we ameliorate them? What should we do?

In the short term, we should certainly support efforts to improve America’s frayed social safety net. Things like expanding family and medical leave and paid sick days, improving benefit portability and similar measures will make a difference—and when someone is struggling, every little bit helps.

We should also raise the minimum wage. Economists at Goldman Sachs recently conducted a simple evaluation of the impact of state minimum-wage increases by comparing 13 states where the minimum wage had increased with states where it didn’t, and found that—despite preconceptions– the states where the minimum wage went up had faster job growth than the states where it didn’t. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the same pattern: employment growth was higher in states where the minimum wage went up.

This is counter-intuitive, I know. It has always seemed logical that raising wages would depress job creation.  What that simple logic missed, however, were the many factors other than wage rates that influence the decision to hire or fire employees. The Goldman Sachs study joins an overwhelming body of evidence that the simple equation—however logical—is wrong. When low-wage workers are paid more, they spend more, and that spending generates job growth.

It isn’t only low-wage workers who would benefit from a higher minimum wage, either: American taxpayers would save a bundle. We currently provide $6.2 billion in public assistance, food stamps, Medicaid and the like to low-wage Walmart workers, and another $7 billion to McDonald’s employees, among many other large, low-wage employers. Those subsidies are particularly galling, because we taxpayers are in effect paying a portion of the wages of those employees, and enriching the shareholders of those huge corporations.

We can talk a lot more about the minimum wage and other near-term measures we should investigate, but let me end by talking about a longer-term idea that is beginning to get some traction.

Most of us understand that without economic security, guarantees of personal, political and religious freedom aren’t worth much. If your day-to-day existence is consumed with the struggle for survival, the fact that you have freedom of speech—or even the vote—is small comfort.

Several countries have considered proposals for a guaranteed basic income. There are a number of variations, but the basic idea is that government would eliminate the various forms of social welfare that are currently in place, and would instead send each citizen an annual amount sufficient to cover basic living expenses.

A practical argument for a guaranteed income is efficiency—there would no longer be a need for the massive bureaucratic apparatus currently required to administer social welfare programs, no need to determine eligibility under the different standards for different programs. (Many years ago, conservative economist Milton Friedman proposed something similar: a “negative income tax” that would require payment from those earning above a certain amount, and send remittances to those below that threshold.)

Social science scholars see other benefits. As automation steadily displaces what were once middle-class jobs, receipt of a stipend sufficient to cover basic living expenses would allow people to go back to school, or to train for alternative employment, or work part-time. It would give new mothers—or fathers—the option to take time off to care for newborns; it would similarly facilitate caretaking for gravely ill spouses or parents.

We also might expect that with a lessening of abject poverty, a number of the social ills that accompany privation would improve, saving tax dollars.

As positive as all that sounds, however, there are reasons why efforts to implement a guaranteed income have fared badly. In Switzerland last year, a basic income proposal on the ballot was overwhelmingly defeated; in 2013 ,the German Parliament debated a similar proposal and rejected it.

The first—and most obvious—negative is cost. Although economists argue about the actual net cost, after savings from eliminating our current expensive patchwork of social programs—any such approach would undoubtedly require tax increases. In the United States, where taxes have become a dirty word even when they are earmarked to support basic services, this fact alone probably presents a politically insurmountable barrier.

There is also the question whether receipt of a guaranteed income, no matter how modest, would reduce the incentive to work. There is very little empirical data on that issue; however, there was an interesting experiment in Manitoba, Canada, during the 1970s, called Mincome. It was intended to assess the social impact of a guaranteed annual income, including whether it would be such a disincentive, and if so, to what degree. Apparently, only new mothers and teenagers worked substantially less. Mothers with newborns stopped working because they wanted to stay home longer with their babies, and teenagers worked less because they weren’t under as much pressure to help support their families, which resulted in more teenagers graduating. However, participants knew the project was not permanent, and it is impossible to know whether—and how—that knowledge affected the results.

There are a number of other legitimate concerns about so drastic a shift in the way we discharge our obligations to our fellow-citizens.

Given American cultural attitudes that valorize work and demean those who rely on public assistance (thanks, Calvin!), it’s safe to say that the United States is unlikely to institute a guaranteed income program (it certainly won’t happen in my lifetime). But even if a guaranteed income isn’t the answer, it is worth asking what it should mean to be a member of a political community. What are the reciprocal obligations of the citizen and the state? If membership has its privileges, what should those privileges be?

I’ll leave that question to you. Thank you.