Forward Thinking: Designing a Social Safety Net

Forward Thinking: Designing a Social Safety Net June 18, 2013

Forward Thinking is a values development project created in collaboration with Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers. Dan is introducing our next prompt today (head on over to see it!), but in this post I will pull together some of the responses to this month’s prompt: “How would you design our social safety net?

First, this from Eudaimonaic Laughter:

This  is the first Forward Thinking project I consider genuinely easy.  What would I do for a safety net if I ruled the world?  Simple.  Single Payer Healthcare Free at Point of Delivery plus Guaranteed Income.  And then look for anyone who slipped between the cracks or didn’t get the help they needed and fix that.

Next, this from Editor B:

The key element of our social safety net should be the universal basic income.

There should be no means test to qualify. The income should be paid to every individual, regardless of any other income they may derive from any other source. Further, there should be no work requirement. The income should be paid whether the individual is employed full-time or part-time or completely unemployed. The income should be paid on a monthly basis to all legal permanent residents.

The amount of the income should be just enough to meet the basic necessities of life.

The chief virtue of this measure would be the direct abolition of poverty. It would also simplify our social welfare system considerably. Many programs could be eliminated and replaced by the universal basic income. We would no longer need an unemployment benefit or social security. It would also foster creativity, innovation and meaningful productivity, because people would have the freedom to pursue truly worthwhile activity.

Interestingly, this idea of a universal or guaranteed income isn’t new. It was suggested by Thomas Paine and Martin Luther King Jr., among others. Editor B addresses the most common criticisms:

How would we pay for it? The most obvious way to fund a basic income would be through taxation. A modest program could likely be established now through existing taxes, with no increased tax burden for anyone. A much more intriguing approach would be to simply print more money. It may sound absurd, but some economists argue that a basic income could be generated in such a manner with few inflationary effects.

Why would people work? This objection rests on the idea that the only motivation to work is to earn a dollar and avoid starvation. Is a rather brutal vision but it’s widely held. This view of work illustrates our profound alienation from our labor. It is in fact one of the problems that the basic income would help solve. The motivation to earn more dollars would still be there, with an improved standard of living as the reward. But the fact is that many people engage in work for other reasons. Some important work is inherently valuable and meaningful in its own right. There are few schoolteachers, for example, who are motivated by primarily by money. The basic income would simply give workers a bit of a cushion and a bit more leverage in negotiating the terms of their employment. But for the skeptics who fear people would leave the workforce in droves, there is a simple answer. The precise size of the basic income would be adjusted through our democratic process. If people aren’t working enough, lower the basic income. If the safety net isn’t providing the security we desire, raise the basic income.

Here are excerpts from additional people’s thoughts:


Food and community. Access to healthy food is a must, and gardens that allow small groups of people to work together can strengthen local block-by-block neighborhoods. I’d increase that until it was embarressing for even the poorest neighborhood to not have a series of communal garden space to grow fresh food and compost organic waste. (non-fecal type organic waste). These gardens would include safe places for children to play built into them.

Rec centers. Safe, well maintained places for people to get together, put on plays, enjoy non-insanely competitive sports, art programs, child developement and parenting classes, classes and therapy for healthy family and adult relationships, after school classes, programs, daycare, poetry slams, art exhibits, more gardening, craft and trade classes, square dancing, hip-hop dancing, libraries, writing classes, and cooking classes for all the garden produce.


To me the welfare state should be based on the principle that the measure of a civilised society is how they take care of their most vulnerable citizens. Which means that children, the elderly, the sick and the unemployed must be cared for and not treated like they are drain on society’s resources which is what our current government are preaching.


I would scrap everything at the federal level and let each state decide upon its chosen path so that those that want cradle to grave government care can live in such a state (with its tax rate), those that want minimal government assistance can live in that state (with its tax rate). I would strictly enforce a policy to prevent states from going bankrupt or receiving any federal bailout; meaning those states where people want massive amounts of assistance would have to figure out how to do so responsibly.

Kevin Alexander:

Mannaism. Give everyone a bank card, usable in any ATM or store, and deposit x dollars each week, x being enough to get by. A student could go to school, a mother could feed her kids, old people don’t have to eat dog food– that sort of thing. Let entrepreneurs scramble to get the money as it’s spent and tax them to fund the system. Keep the tremendous benefits of the capitalist system while making it pay for the damage it does.


If I ran the world? Guaranteed health care, so that no one would have to base any other financial or personal decision around whether or not they could get treatment. And that would definitely include mental health care. Trade schools that were actually worth attending, though I wouldn’t segregate children into trade school until they were old enough that it was a rational decision. Incentives for going into needed fields–no one would ever have to decide against being a doctor because they couldn’t afford it, especially if they were willing to, say, provide health care for the poor. Yes, that would also require educational testing; you wouldn’t qualify for the incentives if you weren’t smart enough or mentally geared toward getting through the education.


Free public schooling through university/trade school. Monthly stipend for vocational or university students so they can concentrate on school. Free or heavily subsidized childcare. Free or heavily subsidized single-payer healthcare. Guaranteed paid parental leave for both parents. Food stamps actually work really well overall, so I’d just expand the program so everyone who needs it can access it, and raise benefits to something resembling enough money. Guaranteed pension for everyone, a la Social Security, but with the recognition that this is many people’s only retirement income so it needs to be increased at the bottom end. Lots of public housing (both free and subsidized) in mixed-income areas; concentrating it in one area leads to ghettoization, which is a problem. Needle-exchange programs and safe high houses- drug addiction isn’t pretty and it isn’t good, but it exists, and Vancouver has shown that this sort of thing works very well in lowering crime rates and also getting people into treatment.

Matthew Hines:

The only way you will break the cycle of poverty for low income Americans is by making them more secure in food supplies, housing, and basic income. Then they can focus on improving their skills, getting a better education, marrying, or whatever else that would improve their life.

Rob F:

The current situation in the US creates incentives for people not to leave bad sitations, such as losing health benefits if they quit their job causes “job lock”, which discourages people from changing jobs or leaving bad situations. This reduces the power of employees at the expense of dipf*** managers on power trips, even if nominally they have the same abilities to quit and go elsewhere; basically, you have more to lose if you wuit than your employer will lose if they fire you. Making health care should be universal or at least not tied into a job would prevent this. I wonder what those whose response to everything is “pack up and leave” would think of this? (I already know the answer).

Little Magpie:

Free public schooling – *including daycare for pre-school age children.* Free single payer healthcare. Guaranteed income / and or housing, food, basic necessities for everyone who can’t afford it on their own (seniors, those unable to work due to disability, those who in poverty for whatever other reason). Free healthcare, and free or heavily subsidized access to medications (or certainly the basic life-saving stuff, anyhow) – since it’s good to not have to pay out of pocket to see the doctor – but how helpful is that if you can’t pay for any meds? Minimum wage that actually amounts to a living wage. Free career/vocational based training for those having difficulty finding work, or wanting to change careers (although this should be voluntary, not coercive, ie, not “you must do retraining if you want welfare benefits). Guaranteed and flexible paid parental leave for both/either parent (ie, leave it to them how they wish to arrange it: perhaps one wants to go back to work immediately because ze loves zir job; then the other should get twice the time). End the “war on drugs” police state and focus instead on harm reduction: rehab, needle exchanges, etc. (Think how many tax dollars would be saved in terms of the police time/wages – I mean, you wouldn’t necessarily be cutting the police, but allowing those resources to be used for something else; and also in terms of not having to incarcerate non-violent drug offenders!)… Much, much more investment in public transit.

For more, read the additional comments left on the original prompt.

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