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Just a Thought — Government broken? There are options

May 30, 2014

    Scandals, unemployment, poverty, education ... turn to any news channel and it would seem the negativity surrounding our country is nearly inescapable.
    A recent Gallop poll revealed 65 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the nation’s system of government and how well it works. I  think that figure is low, based solely on my own little slice of the American Dream.
    I don’t think many people would argue government subsidies meant to aid the ever-increasing numbers of low-income citizens in the United States are anything but effective. The current means tested programs — Social Security, welfare, food stamps, unemployment, HUD, etc. — are inadequate at best and come with more strings than an orchestra.
    While Democrats and Republicans are busy pointing fingers at one another, the wheels of “change” seem to have ground to a halt. The question remains, however, what can be done?
    Aside from voting for who we feel will best represent the citizens, our hands are figuratively tied. Sure, you can write to your representative or senator but, realistically, how far will that get you?
    Maybe it’s time to try something new. Maybe it’s time to look outside our own system of government and consider what other countries are doing.
    Switzerland, for example, has a direct style of democracy. Changes to the constitution may be proposed by members of the public through what are known as popular initiatives, and are voted on if more than 100,000 people sign the petition. If a majority of voters and Swiss states agree, the change may become law. This system not only allows individual citizens a high degree of control, but also means that more unorthodox ideas may become referendum issues.
    One idea introduced late last year by entrepreneur Thomas Minder limited executive salaries of companies listed on the Swiss stock market. Swiss voters will decide on the 1:12 Initiative, the goal of which is to limit the salaries of CEOs to 12 times the salary of their company’s lowest paid employee.
    An even more radical proposal that gained enough support to qualify for a referendum is an initiative to give every Swiss adult a basic income that “ensures dignified existence and participation in the public life of the whole population.” The amount suggested — with no strings attached — is 2,500 francs ($2,800) per month. Each month, every Swiss adult would receive a check from the government, regardless of income, age or employment status.
    This is hardly a new idea. American Thomas Paine suggested a basic income for American citizens as early as 1797, and the negative income tax — in which those earning below a certain amount receive supplemental pay from the government instead of paying taxes to the government — has floated through Washington DC on more than one occasion.

    Once again, the idea has struck up debates around the world. From economists to politicians, the pros and cons of such a system are bandied about with vigor by both sides. There are obvious issues that would arise, beginning with individuals who would take advantage of the income and choose not to work.
    However, with approximately 49 percent of Americans relying on some form of government assistance at the end of 2012, according to statistics provided by the Census Bureau, it’s safe to assume some are already taking advantage of the system.
    Rather than think of the people who will undoubtedly abuse the system and choose not to work, think instead how a guaranteed basic income of $2,500 per month — that’s $30,00 per year — could benefit you and your loved ones. Remember, this guaranteed base income would be given to each adult, not household.
    How would an additional $2,500 per month (or $5,000 in a two parent household) benefit you and your family? Would you be more likely to spend a little more freely? Perhaps dine-out more often, purchase a new vehicle, spend a little more on clothing or take a family vacation? Would you finally be able to afford the new home you’ve been thinking about? Or maybe that additional income would give you the financial breathing room to go after what you truly want in life, start the business you’ve always dreamed of. The fear of how you will live after retirement would be eliminated.
    Since former President Lyndon Johnson first waged the war on poverty 50 years ago, little has changed. About 50 million Americans, 15 percent, live below the poverty line ($23,550 per year for a family of four as defined by the government) and a record 47 million of them — 13 million more than when President Obama assumed office — receive food stamps, according to the Washington Times.
    A guaranteed base income of $2,500 per month would all but eradicate poverty. A study by economist Evelyn Forget of the University of Manitoba examined a small rural town in Canada, where about 1,000 poor families were guaranteed a minimum income for four years in the 1970s. Forget found not only that poverty disappeared, but that high school graduation rates went up and hospitalization rates went down. Yet another facet to consider.
    Whether or not a guaranteed basic income is right for America is something best determined by those much smarter than I. However, the concept itself is intriguing, and as America’s system of aid to the poor and elderly continues to spiral into the dismal abyss, maybe it’s time to consider a new approach.

    The writer is the associate editor of the Decatur Daily Democrat.

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