Libertarian Welfare

The Concept of an Unconditional Basic Income in U.S. Public Debate and Policy, 1945-75


Axel Jansen

The Covid-19 pandemic has given new impetus to the concept of an unconditional basic income, a monthly payment to citizens without a work requirement. Before the pandemic, the concept had been discussed in many countries in recent years even after unemployment had declined. This project focuses on intellectual debates and policy proposals in the U.S. during the sixties and early seventies. Various forms of a guaranteed income, including concepts of an unconditional basic income and a negative income tax, were discussed by intellectuals, economists, and civil rights advocates. After 1969, the Nixon administration considered introducing a negative income tax as an income floor for two-parent families without a means test or work requirements. At the time, such radical policy was discussed in a perhaps surprisingly open debate. While libertarian conservatives appreciated the proposal’s efficiency and restraining effect on government, progressives cherished the prospect of alleviating poverty. The problem was that Nixon, seeking to sell his policy to limited constituencies, denied or ignored his own proposal’s progressive core and instead advanced a racialized perception of welfare policy. The failure of guaranteed-income proposals in the early 1970s ossified a normative commitment to work-derived income that remains in place today.