The false promise of conditional social policies (Mandatory Participation on Trial, Part 11)

Source: Christopher Weyant, New Yorker Cartoons

As my book, Universal Basic Income: Essential Knowledge, discusses, the traditional approach to poverty and inequality relies on conditional programs designed to make most forms of aid to the disadvantaged consistent with mandatory participation.

Programs with genuine conditions cannot eliminate poverty, homelessness, or economic destitution because they have to have some punishment for people who fail to fulfill their conditions. Either the conditions are phony, meaning that they are so easy no one could fail to meet them, or some people will fail to meet them, become ineligible for aid, and live in poverty or homelessness. Without a credible threat, the conditions will become phony. Therefore, the conditional safety net we use to fight poverty actually requires poverty to get people to do what policymakers—who are by-and-large, if not entirely made up of more advantaged people—want them to do.

That’s cruel.

We don’t have to be that cruel.

Do we want to be that cruel?

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Most of the posts in this series were written with the intention of going into my forthcoming book, Universal Basic Income: Essential Knowledge for MIT Press, and many, if not most, of the ideas presented here did make it into the book, but the publisher suggest I soften the wording and some of the arguments, because as is, in this version of it, “the anti-UBI crowd seems like a bunch of mustache-twirling robber barons,” and she rightly thought that the antagonistic stance would be less convincing than more confrontational one here. So, for the book, I made those changes, but I liked what was left out as well. I thought there must be a place for it. And I decided that place was on my blog. I refer everyone to the book because it has a different approach; because it benefits from peer review, copyediting, and more extensive proofreading; and because it has important ideas that aren’t here. Also, many of the arguments here are developed more fully in other books and articles of mine, most of which you can find on my website:

Karl Widerquist,

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