Targeting Poverty with a Universal Basic Income

by Vins
Published: Updated:


President Johnson’s War on Poverty (1964-1970) laid out an ambitious set of welfare programs for low-income families by treating the symptoms of poverty—hunger, lack of medical care and education. It also stigmatized and humiliated those in need. TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) replaced welfare in the mid-‘90s. In this program, single mothers who make up the bulk of TANF participants, don’t get benefits unless they “work” outside the home; this acts as a barrier to education and raising children, making it hard to get ahead. Neither “welfare” nor “workfare” seems to have worked. A recent Harvard study showed that children born into poverty today are no more likely to escape it than 50 years ago.

What if one government program could eliminate poverty, and the social ills that it entails?  A program of universal basic income (UBI) proposes to give every American enough money to stay above the poverty line—unconditionally and for life. This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, Sam Ross-Brown reports. Alaska residents have had a monthly income for decades and the Swiss will vote (May 2014) for a universal income. Libertarian author Charles Murray estimates that giving $10,000/year to every American would be cheaper than current benefit programs, and in two decades, the government could save $1 trillion annually.

Poverty is not just an economic issue; it’s also political, social and personal. These ideas challenge work-identity, labor values, inequality and a sense of the possible. With UBI, workers would be less dependent on any single job, forcing employers to improve working conditions and wages to retain them. People would have time to volunteer and give back to their community. It’s impossible to fully imagine the personal and social good that could come from this universal lifeline.


Sam Ross-Brown, “Fugitive Moments: How to Win the War on Poverty.” Utne.Blog: Fugitive Moments, February 3, 2014,

“Swiss Voters Consider Guaranteed Income for All,” Here & Now, November 27, 2013,

Student Researcher: Kathleen Ortega (San Francisco State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows  (San Francisco State University)