Vox Explains: Poverty
Speaker: There’s always this tone when you read articles about poverty that this is this intractable problem that we barely understand. Let alone, like, have the tools to deal with.
We have the tools. It’s called cash. The government spends billions of dollars on these really complicated schemes to end poverty, but the problem with poverty is not having enough money. The simplest solution when someone doesn’t have enough money is to give them money. And so that’s more or less the idea of a universal basic income.
So lots of people have supported a basic income, or a guaranteed income, or whatever you want to call it. Martin Luther King endorsed one in his last book. Milton Friedman, the libertarian economist, outlined a specific plan for one. Charles Murray, who wrote The Bell Curve, is an avid proponent.
“The solution is to give the money to the people.”
One thing that gets lost is that it really was a mainstream political idea in America as recently as the 70s. Richard Nixon tried to pass a guaranteed minimum income inspired by Milton Friedman. It got very close to passing. George McGovern ran against him on a platform that included a more generous guaranteed minimum income. Jimmy Carter tried to pass a minimum income as president.
But the point is, this was a really mainstream idea. It wasn’t something that was like crazy, like it sometimes feels like today. And a few things happened to make it that way. There were a bunch of experiments that tried out a version of a basic income called the Negative Income Tax in a bunch of different cities in the US and in Canada. And it’s one of those experiments where people will still argue about what the results actually said to this day.
What got reported and passed along by politicians was “no one is going to work if you implement this.” That’s not true. There was an effect on people, worked fewer hours, but it was a pretty modest effect and it’s really hard to say where it came from. Like one place it probably came from was people staying in school longer.
But the overwhelming feeling in Washington was “Okay, we had this idea. We tried it. It didn’t work. Let’s move on.”
But it’s totally possible to end poverty, and we shouldn’t act as though this is something that no one has thought up a way to fix it. People have thought up a way to fix it – the question is if we think it’s worth it.