Urban Wire Banning Guaranteed Income Programs Undermines American Values
Mary Bogle
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Michael Tubbs, Mayor of Stockton, poses for a photograph at his office in Stockton, California on February 7, 2020.

More than 100 guaranteed income pilots have launched in the United States since 2018, and almost all have been unrestricted programs, meaning they place no limitations on recipients. Unlike other in-kind public benefits programs, unrestricted guaranteed income pilots assume recipients can better choose how to allocate resources than government programs can—an assumption that rigorous research has proven accurate. Findings from historic and current guaranteed income experiments demonstrate excellent outcomes for children, and strong gains in adult mental health, physical health, and parenting, as well as large increases in household food security and housing stability.

Despite these clear results, policymakers in 10 states have prohibited or are seeking to prohibit tests of guaranteed income that use public funds, suggesting they are ineffective and “socialist.” Not only are guaranteed income programs often more effective than existing government programs, they also embody core American values, such as liberty and efficiency. In fact, these deeply American characteristics may explain why outcomes for recipients are often so positive.

Guaranteed income programs can increase freedom for Americans with low incomes

When the founding fathers spoke of liberty, they meant the freedom of citizens to tend to their households free of government interference. Liberty was also top of mind for Nobel laureate and free-market economist Milton Friedman when he championed the negative income tax (NIT), a form of basic income, as an alternative to the traditional American safety net in the 1970s. Friedman argued that America’s programs for aiding people in poverty involve an “‘intolerable degree of paternalism,” transforming social workers into “police officers and spies.” By contrast, he said, the NIT would leave financially strapped households with their dignity and privacy intact.

The preservation of liberty for people with low incomes is not simply an ideological concern. Studies demonstrate that guaranteed income recipients often show great ingenuity in improving job prospects and children’s well-being; ingenuity that typically would not be possible under the restrictions imposed by current safety net laws and regulations.

Research on other social policies shows that restricting freedom of choice, intentionally or not, often has negative consequences. Studies on subsidized housing vouchers, for instance, have shown that many landlords, especially those in higher-income neighborhoods, choose not to accept vouchers. As a result, voucher holders are often forced to rent in neighborhoods that are less safe and offer weak access to good schools, good jobs, transportation, and retail necessities like well-stocked grocery stores, which can have negative effects on child development and adult economic mobility.

Guaranteed income programs are more efficient than traditional government programs

Unlike traditional government safety net programs that require reams of red tape and stipulations around the use of funds, guaranteed income initiatives produce good results without wasting much material, time, effort, or energy. As Friedman knew, direct cash has an instant impact on recipients’ income and the administrative costs are low. In contrast, programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are woefully inefficient, often wasteful of taxpayer dollars, and counterproductive for the families who use them, as well as being rooted in racism.

In late 2021, a simple tax rule change in the American Rescue Plan Act expanded the Child Tax Credit for millions of families with low incomes, immediately cutting child poverty in the US by 43 percent. Extensive and rigorous research shows a strong and positive causal impact between household income and children’s cognitive and social-emotional development and health. These outcomes are, in turn, solidly associated with academic and employment success later in children’s lives.

Adults who receive guaranteed income also make productivity gains. Contrary to the common trope that guaranteed income will discourage recipients from working, data from the long-running Alaska Permanent Fund (PDF) and some other recent randomized controlled trials of guaranteed income pilots show modest increases in adult hours worked. These combined gains for parents and their children offer far more societal value than the weak outputs produced by inefficient social engineering schemes designed to “fix” the work behaviors of people with low incomes.

Americans favor guaranteed income programs as a solution to poverty

Almost all of today’s guaranteed income projects are experiments designed to look at the role direct cash might play in a modernized American safety net. And a clear majority of the American public is in favor of enacting guaranteed income programs for adult citizens who make below their community’s median income. Policymakers who want to ban tests of guaranteed income should think twice. They may be forgoing insights on the most popular, effective—and American—solution to poverty ever advanced in the US.


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Research Areas Social safety net
Tags Children's health and development Economic well-being Evidence-based policy capacity Families with low incomes Housing vouchers and mobility Poverty State programs, budgets Taxes and social policy Welfare and safety net programs
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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