In 1776, Tom Paine published “Common Sense”, a widely-read pamphlet that rallied the colonists of America to declare independence from Britain. You can almost hear the penny-whistled tune of “Yankee Doodle” in the background at the mention of his name. But his role as a founder of our nation was but one of his causes. In 1796, he agitated for governments to institute systems of guaranteed income for all, in order to wipe out abject poverty in society. He argued that the same inalienable, natural, God-given rights that endowed people with political freedom also endowed them with a basic level of sustenance. In “Common Sense”, Paine wrote: “…the strength of one man is so unequal to his wants, and his mind so unfitted for perpetual solitude, that he is soon obliged to seek assistance and relief of another, who in his turn requires the same. ”
At the depths of the Great Depression in 1933, Tom Paine’s common-sense proposal was resurrected by a medical doctor from Long Beach, California. Francis Townsend wrote a letter to the editor of a local paper, proposing a universal old-age pension system for Americans. The “Townsend Plan” concept swept like wildfire. Grassroots groups formed to promote it all over the nation. Some say that Franklin Roosevelt proposed the Social Security old-age pension system in order to stave off the momentum of the Townsend movement.
In 1969, the idea surfaced again in a new form, the Family Assistance Plan, championed by Republican President Richard Nixon and New York independent Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Their idea was to guarantee a base level of income for all Americans. It proposed a paltry benefit, but the concept would have cut through the bureaucracy and disincentives to work that plagued the AFDC welfare system. It would have established the principle of universality – thus increasing the likelihood of ongoing political support for it, and removing the stigma of the term “welfare”. The proposal collapsed in the US Congress, but it led to the creation of the Earned Income Credit, a small but important reverse income tax for low income workers.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently disparaged as “victims” the 47% of the country’s citizens who receive government benefits. He complained that these people are not taking personal responsibility for themselves.
But 100% of Americans get government benefits. Everybody is dependent on government-provided sewers, water, roads, public health programs, national defense, and a host of other essential services. What does Romney mean by taking personal responsibility? Digging a hole in your back yard for your own personal outhouse?
I think the problem is exactly the opposite of the one Romney suggests. Americans aren’t as dependent on their government as they should be. If Tom Paine’s plan had prevailed in 1797, if the principle of universal income had become integral to the culture of this country from its founding, a whole range of problems we suffer in America today would not exist. Poverty would be substantially if not virtually eliminated. If everyone received enough money from the government to survive at a basic level, if every American could count on access to health care no matter what, if no one starved for lack of a job, capitalism would flourish like never before. Creativity would flower. Risk-taking job-creators would abound. Taxes would be higher for everybody, but the overall costs of many basic services would be lower. People would get more for their money, all told, and the economy would benefit from greater efficiencies. We could replace a whole array of complicated needs-based subsidies and benefits with a simple universal income check. It could be instituted through a simple, non-bureaucratic system. No forms to fill out, no eligibility tests, no paternalistic political tinkering, no stigma attached to receiving it. Everybody would get the same check. They would pay taxes on whatever they earned beyond that check. Nobody would tell anybody how to spend the money. Political support for such a system, once established, would be much stronger than it has ever been for needs-based welfare programs.
To be sure, some folks would be lazy and try to live off the universal income check alone. But lazy people are to be found in all economic classes today. Their lack of virtue is its own punishment: they miss out on so much of what life has to offer. A universal income system would not be perfect. But it would be more humane, efficient, and practically sustainable than the systems we have today.
Tom Paine’s idea is still just common sense. Let’s demand a system that protects the most vulnerable by protecting everybody!
(I’ll be speaking at First Congregational Church of Palo Alto on Sun, 9/30, at 11:15 am (after worship) on the topic of “Soulful Citizenship” – with a potluck lunch to follow at the church – and I’d love to see you there!)
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California