Our Social Safety Net

Virtually every country provides assistance to their poorest citizens–to those who fall for one reason or another from normal employment. Approaches to fulfill this objective differ widely. The Federal safety net spending in in the United States in 2019 was 2,600 billion dollars. Total government (Federal, State, and local) entitlement spending was 2,900 billion dollars. Of this, about one third was for Social Security and one third for Medicare and Medicaid.

“The federal government funds 126 separate programs targeted towards low‐​income people, 72 of which provide either cash or in‐​kind benefits to individuals. (The rest fund community‐​wide programs for low‐​income neighborhoods, with no direct benefits to individuals.) State and local governments operate more welfare programs.”[1] This year, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Federal Government has added about $3 trillion dollars ($3,000,000,000,000) for temporary one-time assistance for the impact of the forced interruption of production, and is likely to add more.

The goal of these programs is, or should be, to adequately support those needing it without creating disincentives to work and with minimal abuse (corruption). The CARES Act and other pandemic assistance programs were quickly created in an emergency. It is thus understandable that mistakes were made. As time goes on charges of corruption (politically motivated expenditures) are multiplying. The administrative challenges of suddenly making millions of individual payments quickly and correctly were and are huge.

There is a dramatically better way to do this. We might characterize our existing approach of government directed assistance (e.g. food stamps) as the Socialist Model. It is top down and dictates how the assistance is to be used. Replacing all of these programs with a Universal Basic Income (UBI) leaves the decisions on how its recipients use it with each individual. This might be characterized as the Individualist Model. It has many advantages over our existing approach.

A UBI would eliminate all government discretion over who receives assistance and how much they receive.  Every adult citizen would receive that same amount monthly (and every legal child would receive the same smaller amount). The government could not favor one group over another on any bases other than age. This removes political considerations from defining and administering the payments. Every birth and death in the country is recorded in a county hall of records and every legal immigration is recorded with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). Thus, the records upon which payments would be based already exist. Using them would remove my need every year to submit a certified document to my pension plan stating that I am still alive. No special measures or supplements would have been needed to address the personal income shocks of covid-19.

One carveout would be required for medical insurance. Every person or family should be required to use part of its monthly UBI to buy a health insurance policy that at a minimum includes catastrophic care coverage. At the launch of UBI and this insurance mandate, insurers would not be allowed to refuse coverage to people with preexisting conditions and the government would cover the actuarial estimate of the extra cost of such conditions.

As the UBI would replace Social Security pensions, another modification would be for the unlikely case that the UBI would be less than ones current Social Security pension (which in 2017 was $13,824 for someone who retired at age 65). So, for such a person who has already retired or is, say, within five years of retirement, their UBI should not be less than their existing Social Security pension. But a UBI of $1,500 per month ($18,000 per annum) for everyone seems reasonable, which would make this case mute.

Those with a welfare state mentality argue that people can’t be trusted to spend such income wisely (from their perspective). I reject such thinking. There are among us, of course, those individuals with addictions and mental illnesses who are indeed not capable of making their own decisions and thus caring for themselves. Our laws and practices already provide for such special cases and would continue to supersede the rights of such individuals to make their own decisions about the uses of their UBIs.

But can we afford it? Today’s American population is about 330 million, of which about 80 million are under the age of 20. To get a rough sense of what is possible, if we replaced today’s safety net expenditures of 2.9 trillion with a UBI to the 33% poorest (110 million people, of whom 25% or 26 million are under 20 years old) in the U.S. in 2019 each person could received about $26,000 per year or about $2,200 per month. If children (those under 20) are paid half what is paid to adults, existing safety net expenditures could finance about $15,000 per child per year and $30,000 per adult if a UBI is given to the lowest third of the population in terms of income. For a family of four this would be an annual income of $90,000, which is above the median household income of about $64,000 in 2019, and is clearly excessive.

But a UBI must be universal. It must be paid to everyone for several simple reasons. Most importantly, it would eliminate the disincentive to work in the existing programs, which end if a person’s income rises above a specified level. With a UBI, every additional dollar of income joins an irreducible UBI. Every additional dollar earned make the recipient that much better off (the UBI amount plus the earned income). This is a very important feature. In addition, it would remove any political question over the level of income at which it should be withdrawn. It would be paid to everyone regardless of their income.

But paying the UBI to everyone, not just the lowest one third, would triple its cost. Can we afford it? Clearly those who pay taxes will have to pay more to cover this additional cost. But as the additional cost is to cover payments to these taxpayers, they would not pay more on net (depending on the nature and structure of our tax systems).  For reasons of equity and tax efficiency I have long advocated a flat tax, meaning the same marginal tax rate for everyone paying taxes. “My-political-platform-for-the-nation-2017” I would go even further and replace income taxation (both corporate and personal) with a flat rate, comprehensive consumption tax.  When a flat rate tax, whether income or consumption, is combined with a UBI, the net result is mildly progressive. Low income people pay no tax on net and in fact receive net income via the UBI (what Milton Friedman called a negative income tax). Middle income families might break even (receive a UBI sufficient to pay for their extra taxes) and for higher income families their extra taxes would be greater than their UBI, hence a progressive average tax rate system even with flat marginal rates.

A UBI with a flat rate consumption tax would enormously simplify our tax and welfare system while improving the financial incentives to work and returning more control over our lives to individuals from the state. Covid-19 dramatically demonstrates that the time has come to replace existing welfare systems with a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

[1] Michael Tanner, “When Welfare Pays Better than Work” CATO Institute, August 19, 2013.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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