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A universal basic income? Right debate, wrong answer

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(Read caption) The director of Gregory House Programs, a transitional housing program which receives some money from the federal government, sits with a resident in the kitchen of a Gregory House in Honolulu.

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Recently, advocates have revived and extended an old idea: that government should give everyone, regardless of their economic circumstances, a universal basic income (UBI). For instance, each single person would get a government cash payment of, say, $12,000, which is just above the official poverty level of $11,700. The benefit would reduce, or perhaps replace, current government tax and benefit programs aimed at low-income households.  

The proposal raises some important questions about how government should help people avoid poverty and more generally support almost all of us who get government benefits of one type or another. While some critics wonder whether such an ambitious idea is affordable, I’m more concerned about whether society would be better off if government used the money to create opportunity for those who are struggling financially.

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Progressive supporters of UBI see it as a way to eliminate poverty by redistributing more money from the rich. Those on the right say it could replace costly and administratively inefficient welfare-type programs.  Adherents include Andy Stern, former head of the Service Employees International Union, and a growing group of Silicon Valley executives, such as Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, a venture-capital firm which is funding a pilot program to research UBI in Oakland, CA.

The goals of reducing both poverty and inefficiency are worthy. But we want to be sure we don’t discourage work  in an economy already facing unprecedentedly low levels of labor force growth. And while  combining and simplifying  programs makes sense, it can’t be done in one easy step.

Think about how complex low-income support programs have become since  Milton Friedman and my mentor Robert Lampman of the University of Wisconsin first proposed in the 1960s a related idea, a negative income tax (NIT). A half-century ago, there was no federal earned income tax credit (EITC), supplemental security income (SSI), child credit, Head Start, special education, or  Section 8 low income housing assistance.  Congress was just enacting Medicaid, and national health care spending was less than a third of what it is today as a share of the economy. Supporters of UBI are not clear about what they’d do with these programs, or how they’d address pressures such as medical cost growth. Nor do they say how they’d deal with existing tax subsidies, such as the EITC, and the ways people are taxed indirectly as their eligibility for these benefits is phased out.  By choosing the acronym NIT, Friedman and Lampman recognized that phasing out benefits as income rises is effectively a tax rate increase.  

If they don’t replace current support programs, in whole or in part, supporters of UBI need to figure out how to pay for the new cash benefit. And critics, such as Bob Greenstein and Eduardo Porter, question whether we could afford such a program.

But in the medium term, a UBI could be funded simply by freezing the cost of current benefit programs and shifting scheduled increases to a cash program. Consider: Today, government at all levels provides about $35,000 annually in direct supports, including tax subsidies, per household. But that amount is due to increase by $10,000 to $15,000 by about 2026 and double within a few decades.

I’d prefer to shift larger shares of our direct support budget into promoting opportunity for work and saving, while promoting human and social capital. Such efforts would  emphasize long-term earnings growth, wealth accumulation and upward mobility, whereas the UBI, with its focus on current consumption, would likely increase the inequality of market incomes by discouraging work.

Note that UBI supporters are wrong in stressing the inefficiency of existing programs. The type of efficiency they seek could be pursued in part by bundling programs together in a voucher that could be spent, say, on food, housing, or education—a design my Urban Institute colleague Bob Lerman and I called structured choice.

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Despite the flaws of UBI, give its supporters some credit. They recognize both that the existing direct support system is quite flawed and we that do not have to be bound forever to a structure cobbled together over past decades in ways inattentive to current and future needs. There are just better reforms available than the UBI.

This article first appeared at TaxVox.