Imagine my recent surprise on learning Republican president Richard Nixon, in 1968, was on the verge of enacting an unconditional income for all poor families. It would have guaranteed a family of four $1,600 a year, equivalent to roughly $10,000 in 2016. Here we have yet another historical event that’s been conveniently erased from US history books.
Nixon began by commissioning a study involving a little over 8,500 Americans in cities around the country. Researchers attempted to answer three questions: (1) Would people work significantly less with a guaranteed income? (2) Would the program cost too much? (3) Would it prove politically unfeasible?
Outcomes were surprisingly favorable. Hours of work decreased only slightly and allowed for an increase in other useful activities, such as searching for better jobs or working in the home. Among youth, almost all the reduced work hours were used for education. In New Jersey, the rate of high school graduation for participants rose thirty percent.
Polls showed that 90 percent of US newspapers were enthusiastic about unconditional income for poor families. The Chicago Sun Times called it “A Giant Leap Forward,” the Los Angeles Times “a bold new blueprint.” The National Council of Churches, the labor unions, and even the corporate sector were also all in favor.
In 1970 it seemed that the time for a basic income had well and truly arrived.
With 243 votes for and 155 against, the House of Representative approved President Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (FAP) on April 16, 1970. Most expected the plan to pass the Senate, too, which was even more progressive than the House. Sadly the Senate killed it.
Writing in Jacobin,Rutger Bregman describes how Nixon adviser Martin Anderson cunningly scuttled Nixon’s guaranteed basic income proposal. A great admirer of libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand, Anderson widely circulated excerpts from sociologist Karl Polanyi’s 1944 book The Great Transformation. The latter describes a historical system similar to Nixon’s proposed basic income: the Speenhamland system enacted in 1795 to alleviate rural poverty in Britain.
In addition to summarizing a Royal Commission Report highlighting Speenhamland’s adverse effects on both the poor and the community, Polyani cites prominent 19th century economists, such as Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo and Karl Marx, who all roundly condemned the Speenhamland experiment.
It now turns out the Royal Commission Report was based on flawed methodology and essentially fabricated.
Read more about Nixon’s guaranteed income plan, the Royal Commission Report and the devastating impact of dismantling Speenhamland and replacing it with the heinous 1834 Poor Law.