Richard Nixon came within an ace of eradicating poverty. If fate had dealt Nixon a kinder hand, he would have established the principle that everyone is entitled to what we now call a universal or unconditional basic income . History would have deemed him a hero not a villain.
In a series of pilots throughout the United States, everyone was given a basic income whether or not they were in work. The results showed that beneficiaries worked as hard as before and had more time for child rearing and family life. Educational attainment increased and health improved. The leading economists of the day said the scheme was affordable and would eventually pay for itself through reductions in the public purse. There was widespread public support for a universal income scheme to be rolled out.
And so in 1969, Nixon introduced his Family Assistance Plan for a modest basic income describing it as “the most significant piece of social legislation in our nation’s history.” The nation which had just put a man on the moon was all set to establish the principle that money was a basic right.
The Bill passed the lower house with a large majority but got bogged down in the Senate. It was “the most expansive welfare legislation ever handled” according to one Republican senator. Nixon reintroduced the Bill in a revised format the following year but it never got on to the statute books and was finally shelved in 1978.
A similar scheme was tried in the 1970s in a small town in Canada where 1000 families, about 30% of the population, received a cheque each month to raise them above the poverty line. The Mincome project was abandoned when a conservative administration came to power four years later.
The evidence from Mincome was stored away in cardboard boxes and only analysed recently. It also showed that total hours worked were much the same, birth rates dropped and school results improved. Hospital admissions dropped, domestic violence decreased and mental health improved.
The conclusion from these studies is that there is nothing wrong with the poor that putting money in their pockets will not cure. We know too that living a hand to mouth existence for any length of time puts people under pressure, restricts their options and leads them to make poor decisions.
Had the United States, the world’s worthiest nation, gone down this route, there’s little doubt that other countries would have followed suit, according to Rutger Bregman, whose new book ‘Utopia for Realists’ retells the stories of the North American experiments and makes a passionate case for universal basic income and other radical ideas too.
The other stark conclusion is that universal income is political dynamite. It is difficult to shake off the dogma, Bregman argues, that if you want money, you have to work for it. It is much more comforting to hang on to the belief that the poor are feckless, lazy and workshy despite all the evidence.
Margaret Thatcher’s view of poverty as a ”personality defect” still permeates our benefits system today. Anyone receiving Job Seekers Allowance or Employment Support Allowance will be assessed for their capability for work and expected to take part in job training schemes. They will be financially penalised if they do not take part in good spirit. An army of civil servants are unnecessarily employed at great expense to cajole claimants into work whether or not the jobs exist.
When the self employed were threatened with increased national insurance payments after the Budget, they were overnight dubbed as “strivers” as opposed to the “shirkers” or “scroungers” who claim benefits. It demonstrates how desperate we are to keep the poor in their place. To reinforce the point, universal credit and tax credits will be cut next month by £12bn to make living on benefits even more uncomfortable.
Rutger Bregman goes on to argue that the days of relatively full employment are numbered as artificial intelligence takes over. The ethos of going to work will be undermined. Economists say that the factory of the future will only employ a man and a dog. The man will feed the dog and the dog will stop the man fiddling with the machinery.
Only the highly educated, the residents of Silicon Valley and the out of power politicians will have jobs. “If we want this century to be the one in which we all get richer” Bregman argues” we’ll need to free ourselves of the dogma that all work is meaningful.” The gulf between the rich and poor will dramatically increase and a far more radical way of redistributing money will be needed.
Utopia is an aspiration rather than a blueprint in Bregmans’ inspiring book. When we reach the land of plenty, according to Oscar Wilde, we should gaze at the farthest horizon and rehoist our sails.
Bregman may fall short on practicalities but he puts forwards the big ideas that scare off mainstream politicians. A further experiment in universal income is underway in Finland. There are plans to try it in Glasgow too. Matthew Taylor may commend it in his forthcoming review of work. Is it an idea whose time has come round again? Richard Nixon must have regretted losing his place in history. Lets not lose our place too.
published in Newcastle Journal 21st March 2017