The case for pulling our heads out of the sand

There’s a way to end old welfare programs that discourage gainful employment and replace them with a new policy that rewards work, without saying so long to compassion.

This big new idea also would create economic security and financial stability for vulnerable workers, relieving the anxiety that comes with watching their employment automated out of existence. And it would free people to be more attentive to family or leave dead-end jobs and take the risk of starting a business, empowering would-be entrepreneurs and stimulating the economy.

The idea is a universal basic income program. With the welfare programs we spend so much money on, there is a perverse incentive not to work. Recipients have to be poor to get help, and they have to stay poor to keep it. There are income eligibility thresholds, and if you work you eventually reach the point where earning one more dollar will cause you to lose far more. So you come out ahead by cutting back on your hours to stay eligible for the public assistance. With universal basic income, the harder you work the better off you are. It creates a stable foundation to build on. You can climb the ladder and keep right on climbing.

A basic income of, say, $1,000 a month isn’t enough to live on. You’ll still need to work. But if low-wage employment is all you can find, the security of the basic income payment makes it possible to work for low wages and not be doomed to living in poverty.

An increasingly jobless economy where workers are considered disposable is upon us. Robots are here and more are on the way. With each passing day, they replace more assembly line workers. Their impact won’t just be felt in factories. With robots that now can perform gymnastics, do you really think the day’s not coming when robots are laying bricks, hanging drywall, pouring cement, installing carpet and doing a hundred other such tasks? Driverless vehicles are coming. When they arrive, what happens to all the truck drivers, the bus drivers, the taxi drivers, the millions of Americans who drive for a living?

We can bury our heads in the sand, or we can accept that we are going through an economic revolution and think creatively about how to adapt to it. Well over a century ago, America and Europe went through the Industrial Revolution as people left the land and migrated to cities to work in factories. Industrialization was not painless. It’s no coincidence that trade unions, child labor laws, unemployment compensation, workers compensation for those injured in the workplace and Social Security for the elderly all were outgrowths of and adjustments to industrialization.

We are now going through deindustrialization. It’s impossible not to see it living here in the Rust Belt, once home to booming industry and now full of rusted or abandoned factories. There has been a steady loss of manufacturing jobs, and we stand to lose many more as computers, robotics, artificial intelligence and other technological advances change our economy and our world in ways we cannot yet fully comprehend.

We can bury our heads in the sand and ignore the signs of emotional distress and our country’s growing mental health crisis, or we can try to get to the bottom of it. We don’t have to bite off more than we can chew. How about a small-scale experiment with universal basic income here in Wisconsin? Maybe 1,000 participants receiving $1,000 a month while being ineligible for any welfare payments. See how much they work, see if they end up better off than the rest of the population. The cost would be $12 million a year, a tiny fraction of 1% of a state budget that’s close to $80 billion.

What do we have to lose? Except all that stress. And welfare as we know it.