What if we redistributed the tax dollars we currently waste administering poverty programs into a basic universal income?

If you’re a writer – or spend much time with a writer – one thing you know about us is that we like to play a little game called, “What If.” It doesn’t matter what the topic is, we will find a different way to look at it and say, “Well, what if X happened?” It’s where our story ideas often come from, but it’s also a way that we poor, broke artists often get through life on a shoestring and a roll of duct tape. A writer is basically MacGyver minus the cool 1985 haircut.

Meme: The median adjusted family income for disabled workers is about half of the median for others aged 18-64 ($13,323 compared with $24,487). Source: ssa.gov
The median adjusted family income for disabled workers is about half of the median for others aged 18-64 ($13,323 compared with $24,487). Source: Social Security Administration via ssa.gov

I often find myself playing this game with politics and the multitude of social issues that plague our country. This morning, I had one of those curiosity moments where – seemingly out of the blue – a question reared its head in my head and demanded to be Googled. So, I went to Google and asked, “What’s the average annual income of a person on disability?”

Google’s answer didn’t shock me, but its accompanying information did. Did you know that the median adjusted family income for an American WORKER is $24,487? I was shocked while also somehow not surprised. I thought back to the days when I was supporting two small children on that amount of money and how hard it was. What a huge pain it was to constantly have to find time to make appointments with my local human services agency to apply for food stamps and child care assistance, along with the regular recertifications, blah, blah, blah, flashback after traumatic flashback.

All of this was happening as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and came upon a meme of Andrew Yang discussing poverty. And I was reminded of his proposal for a basic universal income for all Americans. I remembered how I dismissed the idea at the time, but this morning, I was looking at the issue from a different angle.

I’ve been trying to get my adult son on disability for months. He suffered a traumatic brain injury after being hit by a semi-truck as a teenager and probably won’t ever be able to manage a regular full-time job for a sustainable length of time. He wants to, but his damaged frontal lobe keeps undermining his efforts.

We have been to doctor appointment after mental health appointment after doctor appointment, all paid for (with your tax dollars) by the agency that decides whether or not a person meets their definition of “disabled” We’ve been told by several people who have been through the process to expect his claim to be denied three times before finally being approved. Apparently, that’s the standard process. That means we will go through this process (spending your tax dollars) three times before they will finally agree to give my son a basic annual income of approximately $13,323.

As all this information knocked around in my skull this morning, I wondered: How much money would be saved if we just eliminated disability and similar programs and gave every American who earns less than a living wage $13,323 a year? What if — instead of wasting what probably amounts to millions of dollars – at least – each year on making people like my son jump though all these hoops to get this pittance of an annual income — we just gave the same amount of money directly to all low-income and no-income Americans?

I’m not even advocating for spending additional money. I’m just wondering, “What if?” What if we cut all these wasteful programs that spend more money determining who “deserves” help than they spend on actually helping people and gave that money directly to the people who need it, no questions asked?

You want to “cut the fat” and advocate for a leaner government? Well, let’s just do away with the entire disability system. It is a bloated system that wastes tons of money and spends most of its resources (YOUR TAX DOLLARS) on finding ways to avoid helping people. What is the actual point of that?

What about the SNAP program? What about all that money the government wastes just on portals and systems for people to apply for assistance? Not to mention all the worker hours spent interviewing applicants, reviewing cases, and everything else that goes along with administering such a program.

**Of course, some numbers would need to be crunched. For example, we need to find out the total amount of money the average person on disability receives between their monthly disability checks and any food stamps and other assistance they might qualify for due to the fact that they are living on a poverty-level income. This would likely increase the total amount that we would need to distribute to every low-income and no-income American.

But you don’t like the idea of a basic universal income because you think people who receive it won’t be motivated to work. Really? Do you really think that a person who is raising a family on, let’s say $20,000 a year to be generous, won’t want to also have a job to supplement that income? Imagine the life you would live if you only made $20,000 a year. Even if you’re single with no dependents, who wants to live that way?

I’m not saying we should rush out and do this. I’m saying, “What if?” Can we just look at the numbers and see what we come up with? I don’t even think something like this should be rushed out nationally without doing smaller test runs first. Ideas like this should always be tested in smaller groups, much like a business would test products in just a couple of cities prior to pushing them out worldwide. This is where states’ rights might come into play.

Personally, I’m a fan of states’ rights, but I also believe that with states’ rights come states’ responsibilities. A lot of these social programs are administered within individual states. Some states do a much better job than others. For example, when my family relied on food stamps and Medicaid in Wisconsin, I thought the program was run quite well. When I moved my family to Illinois for a better paying job (that still didn’t pay a living wage–I still have to work multiple jobs to stay off welfare,) I encountered a system that was beyond broken. The tax dollars wasted by the state of Illinois to do a bad job of administering these programs is mind boggling.

The sad fact is that states like Illinois can not be trusted to meet their responsibilities in this arena. So why not start with one of these states in implementing a program like the one I’m considering? Why not start with a state that is so desperately broken? Let’s look at the State of Illinois’ numbers. Let’s add up all the money that is spent administering these programs, divide that amount of money by the number of Illinois residents who are currently living in poverty, and see how much money could be saved by redistributing that amount directly to the people. If the numbers add up, then why not give it a try and see what happens?

If it doesn’t work, then we can return to the old broken system if you want. But what if it does work? What if a new approach was the answer to so many of our society’s problems? If it works in one state, another broken state should follow. As each new state joins the program, we work out the kinks. And, if we learn how to administer this new, leaner program in a way that actually helps our citizens and our economy, then – and only then – do we expand it and make it universal, across the country.

The bottom line is, this country wastes a lot of your tax dollars administering poverty programs that fail to lift Americans out of poverty. Our welfare system simply does not work. The time has come to try something new. If you don’t like this idea, what ideas can you get behind? Feel free to share in the comments below because there are very few people in our government who have ever been poor enough to have even a basic understanding of why their programs will never work. It’s up to people like us who have actually been caught up in those systems to lead the country out of them.


Hawaii is working on a universal basic income bill with feminist framing

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