The universal basic income blues (and blues from other anti-poverty government programs)

Money Tree by Anavrin-ai, reproduced unaltered under CC BY 3.0 license

One of the fairly hot topic issues that has bubbled up in Houston-area politics is the push by the  Democrat-controlled Harris County Commissioners Court to introduce a pilot program for a universal basic income scheme. The $20.5 million program was funded by the all-powerful, all-knowing federal government via the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. You see, in the time-honored way of politics, after mass hysteria broke out over the uncertainties of the recently unleashed COVID-19 virus, clamor rose for the government to stop it, so state and local governments all across America (and the world actually) imposed wide-scale economic shutdowns. After the shutdowns failed to stop the spread of the virus, the massive economic wreckage caused by the economic shutdowns had to be repaired somehow. So once again the government came to paper over the economic damage caused by political decision-making, and hence the American Rescue Plan Act. The massive sum of borrowed money, in turn, helped set of an increase in inflation (nobody knows how long this will last).

The pilot basic income program, dubbed Uplift Harris, has been bogged down in legal wrangling ever since it was first proposed. The latest legal twist was handed down by the Texas Supreme Court, which said the program was to be put on hold while the legal wrangling made its way through the courts. The Houston Chronicle article notes that Uplift Harris gives recipients control over how they use the money, allowing them to use payments “however they see fit to meet their needs,” according to the program’s website. However, the funds cannot be used for criminal or illegal activities, terrorism or to buy or support anything “that would harm the safety and security” of the community. The program would essentially hand out $500 per month to 1,900 lucky families for a period of 18 months, and then presumably terminate.

Personally, I’m having a hard time seeing the point to this. Essentially, the program will hand out $9,000 to the recipients over 18 months and then come to an end. Then what?

On federal anti-poverty programs

Over the past 90 or so years, the federal government has enacted and ratcheted up a vast array of income transfer programs, which I personally think are unconstitutional, on all kinds of issues. More than a few of them are aimed at alleviating economic poverty. One president, Lyndon Johnson, made a war on poverty one of the touchstones of his presidency. NBC News has a video of President Johnson’s first speech to Congress, made on January 8, 1964, when he declared the war on poverty.

So, it has been 60 years since President Johnson declared war on poverty, and called upon Congress to act. State legislatures were pulled into the war on poverty via Medicaid, and having state-government budgets augmented by federal money taken by taxpayers. At this point, roughly 40% of the budgets of state legislatures across America now come from transfers from the federal government. It is a way in which the federal government largely controls the states.

As for the programs themselves, so many laws have been passed that they assure that money gets thrown at a massive pile of issues. Here is a page from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency, which details $60 billion in affordable housing spending over the next 10 years. There has been so much fraud that has been committed through government housing programs that HUD had a common fraud scheme page to detail them. The Feds, through the USDA, spent $166 billion in 2023 on food and nutritional assistance programs. That makes out to about $500 per year for every single American!

One friend of mine whom I met through politics said to me last year that one complaint he had about (free or reduced cost) school breakfast and lunch programs was that the kids sometimes don’t eat the food they are served. Another is that government school cafeteria workers sometimes steal food to either to eat or to sell it for themselves.

We’re not even going to talk about the massive amounts of money that get thrown at health care, education, and transit. $600 billion was spent on Medicaid between the federal government and the states in 2017, and nearly half of childbirths were paid by taxpayers. Nor are we going to talk about the issue that government employees to get vote in elections, form unions, and potentially vote over their own employment.

Libertarians have been in a long debate over this. One political answer, popular with some Libertarians (and some liberty minded people) is to wipe out all of these programs and instead offer a universal basic income scheme. One big reason for offering this idea up is that – as I alluded to above – because the Feds have passed so many laws and programs over poverty, offering a single universal basic income scheme would do away with well over 100 programs and a huge amount of bureaucracy.

I personally have been opposed to such an idea for two reasons. I’ve had a thought that guaranteeing people a certain income would make them decide to not want to work at all. The second reason, which has been borne out by the very actions of the Biden government and the Democrat-controlled Harris County Commissioners Court, is that the Lefties would never go for doing away with all of the previous government social-welfare laws and programs that have been passed, and swapping them for a universal basic income scheme. Instead, the only way the Left operates is to ratchet things up. For the Left, that means that all of the previous programs are kept in place, and a universal basic income scheme is passed and put on top of all of the other programs which have already been passed. Those two objections alone make the program a no deal.

Are there alternate ideas for alleviating poverty?

Well, yes there are. One prominent program, which in my mind should be expanded, is earned income tax credits (EITC). As always, there is the issue of fraud in the program. Yet if lower income people play by the rules, EITC’s encourage working, whereas universal basic income schemes arguably do not.

Then there is always charity. There are plenty of charities which work to help the needy, including the Houston Food Bank, the Salvation Army, the United Way, Interfaith Ministries Meals on Wheels programs, just to name a few. I get it that some people go hungry at night, but at the same time the biggest problem when it comes to food and health amongst the poor in America today is that many poorer people are in fact overweight.

All this taken together makes me think what’s the point about Uplift Harris? Setting aside the whole issue that the program is basically an 18-month-long helicopter drop of money to certain individuals living in certain zip codes, which then terminates. That point alone gives the program a feeling of being a gimmick or a band-aid. The whole topic of poverty brings up many questions such as why, 60 years after Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty, does it still exist? Are there issues of personal behavior involved that keep some people poor? What about issues of family breakdown or violence? How good of an education, which is one of the primary ways to a better life in America, are poorer people getting? Are Americans who are poor willing to move or travel to jobs and opportunities in order to have a better life? Yet, most of all, when will the people who think that more needs to be done to assist poorer Americans ever really be satisfied that enough is being done?

And I never seem to find an answer to that last question from anybody, and that bothers me.