Basic income reconsidered

Feb 20 JDN 2459631

In several previous posts I have sung the praises of universal basic income (though I have also tried to acknowledge the challenges involved).

In this post I’d like to take a step back and reconsider the question of whether basic income is really the best approach after all. One nagging thought keeps coming back to me, and it is the fact that basic income is extremely expensive.

About 11% of the US population lives below the standard poverty line. There are many criticisms of the standard poverty line: Some say it’s too high, because you can compare it favorably with middle-class incomes in much poorer countries. Others say it’s too low, because income at that level doesn’t allow people to really live in financial security. There are many difficult judgment calls that go into devising a poverty threshold, and we can reasonably debate whether the right ones were made here.

However, I think this threshold is at least approximately correct; maybe the true poverty threshold for a household of 1 should be not $12,880 but $11,000 or $15,000, but I don’t think it should be $5,000 or $25,000. Maybe for a household of 4 it should be not $26,500 but $19,000 or $32,000; but I don’t think it should be $12,000 or $40,000.

So let’s suppose that we wanted to implement a universal basic income in the United States that would lift everyone out of poverty. We could essentially do that by taking the 2-person-household threshold of $17,420 and dividing it by 2, yielding $8,710 per person per year. (Why not use the 1-person-household threshold? There aren’t very many 1-person households in poverty, and that threshold would be considerably higher and thus considerably more expensive. A typical poor household is a single parent and one or more children; as long as kids get the basic income, that household would be above the threshold in this system.)

The US population is currently about 331 million people. If every single one of them were to receive a basic income of $8,710, that would cost nearly $2.9 trillion per year. This is a feasible amount—it’s less than half the current total federal budget—but it is still a very large amount. The tax increases required to support it would be massive, and that’s probably why, despite ostensibly bipartisan support for the idea of a basic income, no serious proposal has ever gotten off of the ground.

If on the other hand we were to only give the basic income to people below the poverty line, that would cost only 11% of that amount: A far more manageable $320 billion per year.

We don’t want to do exactly that, however, because it would create all kinds of harmful distortions in the economy. Consider someone who is just below the threshold, considering whether to take on more work or get a higher-paying job. If their household pre-tax income is currently $15,000 and they could raise it to $18,000, a basic income given only to people below the threshold would mean that they are choosing between $15,000+$17,000=$32,000 if they keep their current work and $18,000 if they increase it. Clearly, they would not want to take on more work. That’s a terrible system—it amounts to a marginal tax rate above 100%.

Another possible method would be to simply top off people’s income, give them whatever they need to get to the poverty line but no more. (This would actually be even cheaper; it would probably cost something more like $160 billion per year.) That removes the distortion for people near the threshold, at the cost of making it much worse for those far below the threshold. Someone considering whether to work for $7,000 or work for $11,000 is, in such a system, choosing whether to work less for $17,000 or work more for… $17,000. They will surely choose to work less.

In order to solve these problems, what we would most likely need to do is gradually phase out the basic income, so that say increasing your pre-tax income by $1.00 would decrease your basic income payment by $0.50. The cost of this system would be somewhere in between that of a truly universal basic income and a threshold-based system, so let’s ballpark that as around $600 billion per year. It would effectively implement a marginal tax rate of 50% for anyone who is receiving basic income payments.

In theory, this is probably worse than a universal basic income, because in the latter case you can target the taxes however you like—and thus (probably) make them less cause less distortion than the phased-out basic income system would. But in practice, a truly universal basic income might simply not be politically viable, and some kind of phased-out system seems much more likely to actually get passed.


Even then, I confess I am not extremely optimistic. For some reason, everyone seems to want to end poverty, but very few seem willing to use the obvious solution: Give poor people money.

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