The Simplest Way to Tackle Poverty

Proposals for a guaranteed minimum income have been gaining momentum over the past few years. What’s all the fuss about?

| Fall 2016

There was a brief moment in time when both the Republican and Democratic nominees for the U.S. presidency supported a guaranteed minimum income (GMI).

Economists and politicians from across the political spectrum had begun to warm to the idea in the 1960s as a poverty reduction measure—from Nobel laureate and free-market evangelist Milton Friedman to left-leaning economists like John Kenneth Galbraith. A petition in the spring of 1968 calling for its adoption was signed by over 1,000 economists, bolstering similar conclusions from multiple presidential and state commissions.

A Nixon-backed bill to adopt a modest form of GMI passed the House of Representatives by a wide margin in 1970 and 1971, and looked poised to sail through the Democratic-controlled Senate.

In Canada, similar momentum appeared to be building. The Special Senate Committee on Poverty concluded in 1971 that a GMI would be the most effective tool for lifting people out of poverty, as did the Castonguay-Nepveu Commission of Quebec. Even Robert Stanfield, leader of the official opposition Progressive Conservative Party, was supportive of the concept.

Then it all fell apart.

GMIs are appealing for reasons that span the political spectrum. At various times the notion has been referred to as a universal basic income, basic income guarantee or negative income tax, but has always maintained one core element: that every member of society receives unconditional cash transfers that guarantee them a minimum income.