The social scientist and American Enterprise Institute scholar, Charles Murray, has an interesting article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “A Guaranteed Income for Every American,” Mr. Murray proposes a Universal Basic Income (UBI) with the following features:
- Every American citizen age 21 and older would get a $13,000 annual grant deposited electronically into a bank account in monthly installments. $3000 would be applied towards health insurance.
- UBI is financed by eliminating all other welfare programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies, aid for dependent children, etc. as well as agricultural subsidies and corporate welfare.
- People can make up to $30,000 a year without losing any part of the grant. Above $30,000 in earned income, the grant decreases to $6500 when the income reaches $60,000. The $6500 retained by all compensates for losing Social Security and Medicare.
- The overall cost of UBI will be $200 billion per year less than the current system. By 2020 UBI would be nearly $1 trillion per year cheaper.
On the other hand, there are at least two possible drawbacks to the Murray plan, as discussed recently by Eduardo Porter in the New York Times:
- It would probably discourage work. Right now 80% of Americans in their prime working years, 25 – 54, are employed. Work is not just what people do for a living, it organizes people’s lives. Making work more optional would impair this basic social structure.
- A UBI divorces assistance from need. For example, a housing voucher could lead a family to move to a better neighborhood. A basic monthly income would probably not.
- More generally, a single parent with several children would be strapped to get by for $10,000 per year without any additional welfare assistance. We can’t let the kids starve.
Conclusion: UBI appears to be an attractive way to simplify our vast welfare system and would save a significant amount of money (always important). But the poor would not be well served. There are better ways to reform our public assistance programs.