Hartmann: Food for Thought at Thanksgiving

Why St. Louis should embrace a guaranteed income pilot program

click to enlarge The basic income plan was proposed by an alderman, but Mayor Jones supports the plan.
DANNY WICENTOWSKI
The basic income plan was proposed by an alderman, but Mayor Tishaura Jones supports the plan.

Why do you suppose poor people are poor?

That inquiry would make for an interesting Thanksgiving dinner table conversation, wouldn’t it? It’s on topic, after all. At no time during the year do more Americans express more compassion for the less fortunate among us.

Still, sympathetic words about poor people can be as inauthentic as a politician at a food bank. Wouldn’t it instead be a fine time to ponder why extreme poverty persists in the most bountiful nation in the history of the world? And to discuss what might be done about it?

I know what some of you are thinking: Don’t you dare politicize our Thanksgiving celebration. This is the one day of the year we come together to proclaim our boundless good. Leave your commie ideas for the other 364.

It is true that these are treacherous Thanksgiving times. No longer is the biggest concern dealing with some inebriated uncle. Today’s worries are that the fallout from the nation’s deep political divide will devolve into weaponization of the family china.

But no sooner than the traditional holiday metal detectors are returned to storage, St. Louis will join a growing national discussion about how to combat poverty. Mayor Tishaura Jones is backing a proposal for an initiative known as guaranteed basic income.

A public hearing is set for Thursday, December 8, on a bill introduced by Alderwoman Shameem Clark Hubbard that would allocate $5 million in pandemic funds — among its other provisions — to provide $500 monthly payments to more than 800 working families. Many details are pending. But controversy can be expected to follow.

That’s why I suggested that annoying Thanksgiving question. Although there’s no simple answer to why poor people are poor, such a conversation would reveal two poles of opinion: one that they’re poor because of their own shortcomings and lack of initiative, to put it gently; two that they’re caught up in an eternal poverty cycle caused by a confluence of systemic ills, from racism to poor education to environmental injustice and more.

Most people likely would plot the answer somewhere between the two poles. But one’s predisposition matters greatly. Those who view the poor as generally lacking sufficient initiative will view the basic-income concept as a wasteful welfare handout with no end. Those believing the problem is systemic will see the program as an investment in those same people.

There’s a growing body of empirical evidence to support the latter view. An experimental program launched in 2019 in Stockton, California, by then-Mayor Michael Tubbs provided $500 no-strings-attached monthly stipends to 125 randomly selected people living in neighborhoods at or below the city’s median household income.

A team of independent researchers, comparing the recipients’ results with a control group, found that the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration program “improved participants' job prospects, financial stability and overall well-being,” as reported by NPR. It allowed them to reduce debt and stress, not their employment, the researchers found.

It was just one result, but the experiment received raves nationally, as reported by the Atlantic, Mashable, Business Insider and other outlets. The Atlantic report summed it up this way:

"An exclusive new analysis of data from the demonstration project shows that a lack of resources is its own miserable trap. The best way to get people out of poverty is just to get them out of poverty; the best way to offer families more resources is just to offer them more resources.”

The Atlantic also pointed to this key finding:

“The researchers also found that the guaranteed income did not dissuade participants from working — adding to a large body of evidence showing that cash benefits do not dramatically shrink the labor force and in some cases help people work by giving them the stability they need to find and take a new job. In the Stockton study, the share of participants with a full-time job rose 12 percentage points, versus five percentage points in the control group."

Stockton’s initiative is a kindred spirit to the universal basic income proposal advanced by Andrew Yang in his 2020 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The theory is simple: If the government invests at the ground level in its people, they will invest in themselves, with exponential benefits to the society at large.

It’s a concept worth embracing, at least experimentally. In the case of St. Louis, it’s a smart investment of $5 million in federal pandemic funds, one that undeniably targets the needs of some those most acutely impacted.

It won’t sit well with those who regard the poor as lacking initiative or worse. That’s to be expected, and as the concept of guaranteed basic income takes hold nationally, expect more of that to follow.

Last week, for example, Texas state Representative-elect Ellen Troxclair announced she’ll propose a state ban on all universal basic income programs. The headlines she enjoyed can only mean the issue has serious wingnut potential.

But here in St. Louis, we don’t need conservative politicians to throw cold water on Jones’ promising idea. We’ve got the formerly liberal St. Louis Post-Dispatch for that.

With its customary air of sanctimony — as if it emanated from some cottage in Connecticut — the Post scolded the mayor with this editorial headline:

“A base income for city's poor isn't crazy, but lack of details are unacceptable."

How kind to bestow the coveted “isn’t crazy” label upon helping poor people. The Post even made a smart case for why this sort of stimulus is more justifiable than transferring large sums of public resources to private hands through trickle-down economics.

“Passing out money to St. Louis’ poorest residents isn’t actually the loony-left idea that some on the right portray. Poverty is largely a systemic issue that requires societal action. And when there is money in the hands of people who will immediately spend it on unmet basic needs, that actually helps get money flowing through the local economy faster and more realistically than the discredited supply-side notion of putting more money into the pockets of the rich, where it’s more likely to stay.”

That would have been a nice place to stop. Instead, the paper screeched to a 180-degree turn as it whined that the details haven’t yet been flushed out:

“Unless Jones has some way to make the program sustainable — and that’s not at all apparent — it risks becoming just a brief, expensive bit of political theater that doesn’t ultimately do much for either the poor or for the city’s economy.”

Nice of the Post to borrow the illogic, in another context, of the NRA: Since no gun control measures can guarantee the end of all violent crime, then no gun control is worth trying.

Worse, though: Professing concern for the poor and then trashing even a small attempt to lend a hand is the journalistic equivalent of Donald Trump’s tossing paper towels in Puerto Rico.

Now that was a good Thanksgiving Day icebreaker.

This article has been updated.

Ray Hartmann founded the
Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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