Loss of support for guaranteed income reflects radical shift in values

Original Reporting | By Mike AlbertiKevin C. Brown |

Martha McCluskey, a professor of law at the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY Buffalo), pointed out that the arguments for a guarantee of basic economic security being made in the 1960s by the civil rights and welfare rights movements — both of which supported the idea of a GAI — relied on the assumption that achieving full citizenship required not only gaining civil and political rights, but also gaining the economic security that is necessary to participate fully in both one’s local community and the broader civil sphere.

“There was the implicit argument that you couldn’t separate civil and political rights from economic rights,” McCluskey said.

When South Dakota Senator (and later presidential candidate) George McGovern introduced a version of GAI on the floor of the Senate in 1970, he invoked both the idea that Americans have mutual obligations to each other and the idea of active social citizenship. Adopting a GAI policy, he said, would be a move toward “insuring each of our citizens against the risk of poverty and doing so simply because we believe that this kind of minimal financial security should be a right of citizenship in our country.”

“Perhaps programs to guarantee an income will, after a period of years, translate into new forms of social awareness and an increased participation in the political life of the nation,” said Representative William J. Green III (D-Pa.) in 1971.

According to Daniel Rodgers of Princeton, the idea of active citizenship was a key element behind pro-GAI arguments.

In 1971, for example, Representative William J.  Green III (D-Pa.), made an explicit appeal to this idea.

“Perhaps programs to guarantee an income will, after a period of years, translate into new forms of social awareness and an increased participation in the political life of the nation,” Green said. “Almost all of us accept this as a reasonable assumption, and it is the assumption that is the foundation of this plan.”

Rodgers said that, since the 1970s, the prevailing American concept of citizenship has come to de-emphasize participation and obligation. 

Linda Gordon, a professor of history at New York University, cited the widespread impulse to describe the paying of taxes as an imposition on individual freedom as an example of citizenship viewed through the lens of individual rights, instead of collective obligations.

“That civic obligations like paying taxes and serving on juries are seen as burdens and infringements on individual liberty, rather than as privileges of citizenship and part of what it means to participate in democracy I think shows how underdeveloped our sense of citizenship has become,” Gordon said.

When the value placed on participation and mutual obligation declined, said Erik Olin Wright, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “you saw a transformation of the citizen into a client or a consumer of state services,” which represented “a fundamental erosion of the richness of citizenship and of what it means to live in a society.”


What role for government?

Marisa Chappell, an associate professor of history at Oregon State University, said that one of the differences between the social climate from which the arguments for a GAI arose in the 1960s and 1970s and the dominant ethos today is that there used to be a widespread belief that the government had a role to play in solving problems.

“Poverty was seen as a social problem, not an individual problem,” she said, “and so it demanded a government solution.”

The 1969 report of the President’s Commission on Income Maintenance Programs, which recommended that the United States adopt a GAI, argued that a central federal role was necessary and would be effective: “the Commission feels strongly that the problem of poverty must be dealt with by the Federal Government. It is possible to assure basic economic security for all Americans within the framework of existing political and economic institutions. It is time to construct a system which will provide that security.”

President Lyndon Johnson, delivering his State of the Union speech in January 1964, declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America.”

By the 1980s and 1990s, however, belief in both the need to assure the welfare of markets and in the ability of unfettered markets to secure the welfare of the nation was strongly ascendant.

Whereas the market previously had been seen as being under the control of the government and in service to citizens said Martha McCluskey of SUNY Buffalo, the increasing influence of market-centric thinking yielded the subordination of the role of the state.

“Nobody ever says this explicitly, but the underlying assumption of the vision of the free market society is that the purpose of government is to serve these ‘market forces,’” she said. “Instead of being accountable to its citizens, it becomes accountable to the market.”

During the Clinton Administration, for example, U.S. policy regarding globalization was frequently framed in terms of making citizens adapt to that phenomenon and not vice versa.

In his famous “New Covenant” speeches given at Georgetown University in 1991 while he was laying the groundwork for the run for the presidency, Clinton expressed an idea that would remain central to his governing philosophy: that because globalization was, in his mind, an inevitable process, the only choice for the United States was to “organize to compete and win” in the new global economy. “Protectionism,” Clinton said, was “just a fancy word for giving up.”

In a speech in 1994, a year after signing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Clinton again invoked the supposed inevitability of globalization and the necessity of adaptation. “Even as we speak and meet here, powerful forces are shaking and remaking the world,” Clinton said. “That is the central fact of our time. It is up to us to understand those forces and respond in the proper way so that every man and woman within our reach, every boy and girl, can live to the fullest of their God-given capacities.”

As an illustration of the continuing desire to serve market forces, McCluskey pointed to Obama-era calls for austerity, appeals that are frequently justified by reference to what would please the bond market.

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