It was 1995 and I was in a public policy class. Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America was all the rage and one of its components included reforming welfare. We were sitting in a circle discussing potential welfare reform options and what should be included in the upcoming legislation.
Dr. R, an outspoken Republican professor who always wore his capital ‘R’ belt buckle to the right to make sure people knew he was right leaning, was facilitating the discussion. At the time, it was fairly well known on campus that I was a Republican. But I was also a sociology major that was coming to terms with the reality that private charity could never replace government spending to support lower income families. The numbers did not work. Yet, I believed the existing system did not work either and supported significant reform.
Many of my fellow students argued for work requirements to receive financial support; Cutting off aid after some time period; Eliminating fraud and abuse. Pretty standard suggestions. And in my view, boring recommendations that lacked creativity.
I suggested something which was considered radical by my peers. Eliminate the social safety net completely. All the programs. Food stamps. Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Commodity programs. Everything, including the bureaucratic workforce who was more worried about program compliance than supporting their neighbors. As a replacement, I suggested that the government provide direct, universal payments to Americans which would act and guarantee a base income for everyone. Any other financial support would come for private charity.
When seriously questioned about this by my peers, I argued that:
- My proposal would provide everyone with a base to live, and free people from the negative judgment of others.
- I argued that it was a conservative proposal because it provided stability to meet people’s basic needs, and allowed them to make personal choices about caring for children either by staying home or working and paying for childcare.
- I stated it would allow people to pursue dreams that may be risky but while pursuing it the basic income would ensure that people would not need to worry about becoming homeless. Moreover, when some of these dreams become successful they will create important businesses that yield jobs and tax revenue.
- I argued it would be administratively cheaper to have cash transfers rather than employ thousands of people to ensure program compliance, and make determinations of who is and is not eligible for assistance. At the time the Internet was emerging, and I made the point that it could provide opportunities to drive down administrative costs even further.
Of course, I was not able to ‘sell’ this idea to my class. It was too radical for the time. Too outside the norm. In fact, it was the first time I heard the term ‘RINO’ because I was called one by several of my classmates. Fortunately, Dr. R reminded the class that there were different types of Republicans, like Rockefeller Republicans. And he supported my creative thinking as it related to public policy options.
In the past few years, my 1995 idea has been brought back to life by Andrew Yang and his idea of the Freedom Dividend. (I don’t think he supported getting rid of the social safety net though.) And now, Senator Romney and President Biden are both talking about direct payments in the range of $350 a month per child to Americans with young children. Senator Romney reorganizes existing appropriations into this payment so it is cost neutral. President Biden’s proposal is part of the Covid-19 relief plan, and does not seem like a transformational reform but an add-on to the current system.
My Idea to Consider for today is this: Hallelujah! Let’s have a discussion about a public policy reform that could really assist young families. Personally, I prefer Senator Romney’s initial ideas because it is a real reform instead of just more. It is universal so it removes stigma. And it allows families options that work for them. There is not judgment whether a mom or dad stays home to care for children, or whether they decide to work. There is not judgment if they invest these funds into a child’s post secondary education. There is not judgement if they utilize these funds to move into a house that happens to be in a better school district.
It is exciting to know that someone is thinking about ideas that can improve the social condition. And that a similar idea is coming from a Republican and a Democrat provides a glimmer of hope that we can work together as Americans and not only as partisans. Ah…a Public Policy Discussion. Go Sen. Romney & President Biden!