For the small group of people who work toward establishing a guaranteed income professionally, we are used to the furrowed brows and looks of skepticism that come with explaining what we do to most people outside our network.
“You want to give people money?”
The inevitable follow-up is why not invest instead in education or healthcare or housing? We should have all those things, and we can afford all those things as a country, but we should also understand that the needs of each individual differ, and cash allows people the flexibility to take care of whatever’s most pressing in the moment. In fact, we have a lot of empirical evidence that shows that cash is one of the most effective ways to alleviate the harms of income instability and poverty. When I first started working on a guaranteed income in late 2016, these conversations usually fizzled out quickly—even among my most open-minded friends and colleagues.
Now, less than three years later, the simplicity and common sense behind providing poor and middle-class Americans with cash benefits is no longer a radical idea. In the past few months, we’ve seen leading political figures introduce different versions of a similar policy—providing credits to Americans through the tax system. From Senator Kamala Harris’s LIFT Act to Senator Cory Booker’s Rise Act, policy solutions to the rising cost of living and increased income inequality are now a cornerstone of the progressive movement.
The latest entry into the push behind tax credits for the poor and middle class is Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who’s set to introduce the Building Our Opportunities to Survive and Thrive (BOOST) bill in Congress. The legislation would provide an income floor of up to $250 a month to individuals and $500 monthly to families. Tlaib says the inspiration behind the bill was sitting down with moms in her district who shared the struggles they face trying to make ends meet.
Their situation is increasingly common in an economy designed to siphon wealth to the very top, while those who toil in the hard work of supporting corporate profits find that a 40-hour work week is no longer enough to cover the bills. In fact, even with the economy approaching full employment, nearly 40 percent of adults report that they have trouble meeting their basic needs – at the same time, the richest 0.1 percent of Americans now owns the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90 percent.
Cash is not only one of the most effective ways to address the varying needs of the poor and middle class, but this new generation of policies also marks an important shift in our cultural values around deservedness by challenging the harmful idea that a person’s worth is directly correlated to their income. Senator Booker’s credit expands the definition of work to include unpaid caregiver and students, and Harris’s extends to students. Rep. Tlaib’s bill offers a monthly income guarantee to families making under $100,000, regardless of their existing income. Contrary to popular conservative talking points, poor people aren’t struggling because they’re not budgeting well – they’re struggling because a full-time job often doesn’t meet basic needs, and because our current labor market structure’s lack of paid parental and family leave along with shutting out of formerly incarcerated Americans leaves many potential workers without viable employment options.
The BOOST bill makes Rep. Tlaib the newest entrant into a group of future-thinking policymakers who are driving a seismic shift toward the big idea of creating an income floor for all by providing cash to everyone in America who needs it most. It also offers a way to implement a federal version of the local pilot work on guaranteed income being led in cities such as Stockton, CA and Jackson, MS – where recipients are reporting major improvements to their lives and livelihoods, such as being able to turn down overtime to help their children with their homework to being able to afford tuition to go back to school themselves.
It’s time we break with outdated notions that the only way to measure the value of work is through a paycheck. As any parent who’s stayed up with a sick child all night or adult who’s nursed a parent through terminal illness will tell you, some of the hardest, and most rewarding, labor that is done in this country comes without compensation. We have the opportunity to change that, and doing so would benefit both our economy and our society.