Switzerland’s Proposal to Pay People for Being AliveBy ANNIE LOWREYNovember 12, 2013
This fall, a truck dumped eight million coins outside the Parliament building in Bern, one for every Swiss citizen. It was a publicity stunt for advocates of an audacious social policy that just might become reality in the tiny, rich country. Along with the coins, activists delivered 125,000 signatures — enough to trigger a Swiss public referendum, this time on providing a monthly income to every citizen, no strings attached. Every month, every Swiss person would receive a check from the government, no matter how rich or poor, how hardworking or lazy, how old or young. Poverty would disappear. Economists, needless to say, are sharply divided on what would reappear in its place — and whether such a basic-income scheme might have some appeal for other, less socialist countries too.
The proposal is, in part, the brainchild of a German-born artist named Enno Schmidt, a leader in the basic-income movement. He knows it sounds a bit crazy. He thought the same when someone first described the policy to him, too. “I tell people not to think about it for others, but think about it for themselves,” Schmidt told me. “What would you do if you had that income? What if you were taking care of a child or an elderly person?” Schmidt said that the basic income would provide some dignity and security to the poor, especially Europe’s underemployed and unemployed. It would also, he said, help unleash creativity and entrepreneurialism: Switzerland’s workers would feel empowered to work the way they wanted to, rather than the way they had to just to get by. He even went so far as to compare it to a civil rights movement, like women’s suffrage or ending slavery.
When we spoke, Schmidt repeatedly described the policy as “stimmig.” Like many German words, it has no English equivalent, but it means something like “coherent and harmonious,” with a dash of “beauty” thrown in. It is an idea whose time has come, he was saying. And basic-income schemes are having something of a moment, even if they are hardly new. (Thomas Paine was an advocate.) But their renewed popularity says something troubling about the state of rich-world economies.
Go to a cocktail party in Berlin, and there is always someone spouting off about the benefits of a basic income, just as you might hear someone talking up Robin Hood taxes in New York or single-payer health care in Washington. And it’s not only in vogue in wealthy Switzerland. Beleaguered and debt-wracked Cyprus is weighing the implementation of basic incomes, too. They even are whispered about in the United States, where certain wonks on the libertarian right and liberal left have come to a strange convergence around the idea — some prefer an unconditional “basic” income that would go out to everyone, no strings attached; others a means-tested “minimum” income to supplement the earnings of the poor up to a given level.
The case from the right is one of expediency and efficacy. Let’s say that Congress decided to provide a basic income through the tax code or by expanding the Social Security program. Such a system might work better and be fairer than the current patchwork of programs, including welfare, food stamps and housing vouchers. A single father with two jobs and two children would no longer have to worry about the hassle of visiting a bunch of offices to receive benefits. And giving him a single lump sum might help him use his federal dollars better. Housing vouchers have to be spent on housing, food stamps on food. Those dollars would be more valuable — both to the recipient and the economy at large — if they were fungible.
Even better, conservatives think, such a program could significantly reduce the size of our federal bureaucracy. It could take the place of welfare, food stamps, housing vouchers and hundreds of other programs, all at once: Hello, basic income; goodbye, H.U.D. Charles Murray of the conservative American Enterprise Institute has proposed a minimum income for just that reason — feed the poor, and starve the beast. “Give the money to the people,” Murray wrote in his book “In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State.” He suggested guaranteeing $10,000 a year to anyone meeting the following conditions: be American, be over 21, stay out of jail and — as he once quipped — “have a pulse.”
The left is more concerned with the power of a minimum or basic income as an anti-poverty and pro-mobility tool. There happens to be some hard evidence to bolster the policy’s case. In the mid-1970s, the tiny Canadian town of Dauphin ( the “garden capital of Manitoba” ) acted as guinea pig for a grand experiment in social policy called “Mincome.” For a short period of time, all the residents of the town received a guaranteed minimum income. About 1,000 poor families got monthly checks to supplement their earnings.
Evelyn Forget, a health economist at the University of Manitoba, has done some of the best research on the results. Some of her findings were obvious: Poverty disappeared. But others were more surprising: High-school completion rates went up; hospitalization rates went down. “If you have a social program like this, community values themselves start to change,” Forget said.
There are strong arguments against minimum or basic incomes, too. Cost is one. Creating a massive disincentive to work is another. But some experts said the effect might be smaller than you would think. A basic income might be enough to live on, but not enough to live very well on. Such a program would be designed to end poverty without creating a nation of layabouts. The Mincome experiment offers some backup for that argument, too.“For a lot of economists, the issue was that you would disincentivize work,” said Wayne Simpson, a Canadian economist who has studied Mincome. “The evidence showed that it was not nearly as bad as some of the literature had suggested.”
There’s a deeper, scarier reason that arguments for guaranteed incomes have resurfaced of late. Wages are stagnant, unemployment is high and tens of millions of families are struggling in Europe and here at home. Despite record corporate earnings and skyrocketing fortunes for the college-educated and already well-off, the job market is simply not rewarding many fully employed workers with a decent way of life. Millions of households have had no real increase in earnings since the late 1980s. Consider the current debate over fast-food workers’ wages.
The advocacy group Low Pay Is Not OK posted a phone call, recorded by a 10-year McDonald’s veteran, Nancy Salgado, when she contacted the company’s “McResource” help line. The operator told Salgado that she could qualify for food stamps and home heating assistance, while also suggesting some area food banks — impressively, she knew to recommend these services without even asking about Salgado’s wage ($8.25 an hour), though she was aware Salgado worked full time. The company earned $5.5 billion in net profits last year, and appears to take for granted that many of its employees will be on the dole.
Absurd as a minimum income might seem to bootstrapping Americans, one already exists in a way — McDonald’s knows it. If our economy is no longer able to improve the lives of the working poor and low-income families, why not tweak our policies to do what we’re already doing, but better — more harmoniously? It’s hardly uplifting news, but minimum incomes just might be stimmig for the United States too.
Annie Lowrey is an economics reporter for The Times. Adam Davidson is off this week.