I've read about two different approaches to two different but related issues, and they seem to be at odds with each other. No wonder we find the world confusing . . . or at least I do. Maybe you don't.
The first is about the Universal Basic Income. It's an idea that has gained some currency lately, but goes back at least to the 1930s and has been endorsed by conservatives and liberals alike -- from economist Milton Friedman to the person we're celebrating today, Martin Luther King.
The idea is that the federal government would pay every citizen a monthly stipend, kind of like Social Security, without any conditions, restrictions or requirements. Some proponents have suggested $5,000 a year; others have argued for up to $20,000. Of course, the program would be expensive, but it might not be all that expensive if it replaced other forms of welfare which can be complicated, unfair, demeaning and subject to cheating.
The basic income removes the threatening and sometimes demeaning condition to seek and take
employment. And according to some, it actually increases the incentive to take a low-wage job because, unlike welfare, the payment is not phased out as a person's income rises.
The Universal Basic Income treats citizens like adults, rather than children. They can accept the money and retain their pride and self-worth. There's no stigma attached. It would help a lot of Americans, and not just the poor. Think of the people who have a decent job, but like most of us, live paycheck to paycheck. They want to go back to school to get more training, to get a better job. But how do they support themselves for the year or two that it takes to get the new degree? A basic income would allow them to do that.
I see the problem at my community college. In New York, the governor is proposing free tuition for community college. That's nice. But what I see are young people who are already working one or two jobs, maybe also taking care of children, and then they're trying to find the time to attend class and also do their homework. It's too much, which is why the community college dropout rate is so high. A universal basic income would help these students complete their degrees and go on to get better jobs as nurses or medical technicians or computer programmers.
But then I saw a story in Saturday's New York Times called In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda. To me, it highlights the problem.
The article reported on research by the U. S. Department of Agriculture that found soft drinks are the number one item purchased by the 43 million relatively poor Americans who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Sodas and sweetened drinks account for almost 10% of their food purchases, while the broader category of junk food, including candy and salty snacks, makes up fully 20% of their budget. “In this sense, SNAP is a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the
soda industry,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University.
There have been efforts by medical groups and local government
officials, such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, to restrict the
use of food stamps, so they cannot be used to buy junk food. Researchers from Stanford University suggested that banning sugary drinks
from SNAP could "significantly reduce obesity prevalence
and Type 2 diabetes, particularly among ages 18 to 65 and some racial
and ethnic minorities.” But food and beverage interests -- including Pepsi,
Coca Cola and Kraft -- have fought these proposals, saying they would be unfair
to food-stamp users.
Other services, such as the school lunch program, do have nutrition standards. Plus, some people argue that plenty of other government programs have restrictions. For example, Medicare will pay for necessary medical procedures, but it does not reimburse for ones it considers harmful, ineffective or unnecessary.
But do the junk food companies have a point? Would restricting SNAP to healthy foods be a form of social engineering that essentially treats recipients like children? After all, the USDA report also revealed that while SNAP users do buy more junk food than non-SNAP users, and less fresh produce, it's not that much more. Soft drinks are the second biggest purchase, behind milk, for non-SNAP grocery buyers.
Still, does it make sense for a massive taxpayer program to subsidize people consuming unhealthy products? And if we can't trust SNAP recipients to spend their money wisely, why would we think Universal Basic Income recipients would prove any different?