Loss of support for guaranteed income reflects radical shift in values

Original Reporting | By Mike AlbertiKevin C. Brown |

In a 1995 letter to Congressional leaders pushing the reform, Clinton said nothing about the obstacles that might prevent individuals from obtaining jobs. Instead, he placed great emphasis on his belief that every individual has an obligation to work:

Finally, welfare reform must be about responsibility. Individuals have a responsibility to work in return for the help they receive. The days of something for nothing are over. It is time to make welfare a second chance, and responsibility a way of life.


Market worship

Alice O’Connor, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), said that the rise of a market-centric world view has displaced other values in America to such an extent that it is now often accepted that the broader society has an obligation not to give assistance to the poor or disadvantaged.

“The idea is that there are these market forces out there that, if left alone, will produce the best outcomes,” she said. “Everything you do that interferes with those forces is considered a distortion, so an obligation develops to get out of [the market’s] way.”

“So now instead of saying, ‘We have an obligation to support the poor,’ we’re saying, ‘We have an obligation to let the poor take care of themselves,’” said Fred Block of the University of California, Davis. “That’s about as different as it gets.”

Fred Block, professor of sociology at the University California, Davis explained that, when applied to policies intended to aid the poor, the logic that there is an obligation not to interfere with the market gave rise to an idea called the “perversity thesis,” which states that by giving benefits to the poor, the government is interfering with the “market signals” that are telling them to work.

“The underlying logic is that if we interfere with those signals [by giving people benefits],” Block said, “they will stop being able to operate as people should in a market society, which is by listening to and responding to the signals of the market.”

That perspective was a cornerstone of President Reagan’s thinking about welfare. “It is a fact of American life that many Federal programs, while attempting to help the poor, have made them more dependent on the government,” Reagan said. The solution, he said, was to remove the distorting effects of government intervention on market signals by “making work and self-sufficiency more attractive than welfare.”

Six years later, President Clinton had adopted the same rhetoric when advocating welfare reform. “We cannot permit millions and millions and millions of American children to be trapped in a cycle of dependency…with parents who are trapped in a system that doesn’t develop their human capacity to live up to the fullest of their God-given abilities,” he said. In that speech, Clinton makes it clear that removing the “obstacles” to self-sufficiency was an obligation, a duty that “we owe…to the next generation.”

“So now instead of saying, ‘We have an obligation to support the poor,’ we’re saying, ‘We have an obligation to let the poor take care of themselves,’” Block said. “That’s about as different as it gets.”


Social citizenship

Several scholars pointed out that, in the last 50 years, Americans’ understanding of what it means to be a citizen has changed dramatically, as well, and that these changes also spurred the decline of GAI as a mainstream policy possibility.

According to Alice O’Connor of UCSB, many proponents of GAI in the 1960s and 1970s were drawing on an idea of citizenship that sprang, in part, from how citizenship had been defined in the New Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s, particularly the idea that full citizenship entails not only political and civic rights but also economic security.

Freedom and responsibility

In his 1964 acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination, Lyndon Johnson made a forceful case for eliminating poverty on the grounds that it would empower people to participate in the broader society.

“The man who is hungry, who cannot find work or educate his children, who is bowed by want — that man is not fully free,” Johnson said.

“For more than 30 years, from Social Security to the war against poverty, we have diligently worked to enlarge the freedom of man. And as a result, Americans tonight are freer to live as they want to live, to pursue their ambitions, to meet their desires, to raise their families than at any time in all of our glorious history.”

Though he framed his argument for economic security in terms of individual freedom, it is clear that Johnson’s vision of freedom came with social obligations.

Those individuals who had achieved the means to participate fully in society and “received the bounty of this land…must not now turn from the needs of their neighbors,” he said.

O’Connor explained that the massive economic hardship that was experienced during the Great Depression gave rise to a widespread sense that, when individuals are struggling to make ends meet, it will be much more difficult for them to exercise their political and civil rights and to fulfill their social obligations. Additionally, she said, an understanding developed that being unable to participate actively in one’s community and to feel included in that community — whether by attending social events or by purchasing new clothing for children at the beginning of a school year — because of economic deprivation constituted a form of “disenfranchisement” in itself.

That sense of social and economic disenfranchisement — the understanding that economic security was a prerequisite for full civic and social participation — gave rise to a conception of citizenship in which economic rights were inseparable from civil and political rights.

“The idea of full economic citizenship was an underlying rationale for a very broad range of advocacy and a justification for social policy,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor pointed to the “Economic Bill of Rights,” proposed by President Roosevelt during his State of the Union Address in 1944 as an illustration of the idea that full citizenship depended not only on having civil and political rights and obligations, but also on having the means to exercise those rights and fulfill those obligations. In that speech, Roosevelt argued that the political rights guaranteed by the Constitution had “proved inadequate to assure us all equality in the pursuit of happiness.”

“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” Roosevelt said.

The idea that full citizenship entailed economic rights as well as civic and political rights was more fully articulated by the British sociologist T.H. Marshall in his 1949 essay, “Citizenship and Social Class,” in which he argued that “a modicum of economic security and welfare” is necessary to have the time and the means to enable full participation in society and the civic community.

While proponents of GAI in the 1960s did not draw explicitly on Marshall’s argument, O’Connor said that, in many ways, their arguments followed the same logic that the rights of citizenship entailed some measure of economic security.

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