Guaranteed minimum income (a/k/a basic income or universal credit) is, roughly speaking, the concept that everyone gets a monthly payment, in an amount sufficient at least to pay for food, shelter, and otherwise to keep people alive and off the streets. Like many socialist ideas, the guaranteed income proposal has long stood as a humane remedy to harms that capitalism inflicts upon vulnerable individuals; like many socialist ideas (e.g., the 40-hour workweek, protections for workers, universal healthcare), it will probably be adopted here eventually — although, if history is any indication, it will be adopted only after a long, drawn-out, and ultimately unnecessary struggle.
There have been various calculations of how such a plan could be funded. A view that impresses many libertarians (who generally prefer reduced government) is that the plan could largely pay for itself by eliminating the need for a panoply of governmental programs and assorted poverty pimps that have constructed an enormous and expensive industry around the effort to help struggling individuals and families.
A basic income need not be universal (i.e., available to everyone). For instance, its availability might be income-contingent: people with other income might receive reduced basic payments, tapering to zero above a certain level. The suggestion presented here is that a basic income might be made available only to those who have earned at least an associate’s (i.e., two-year) college degree.
Such a qualification could frustrate the libertarian purpose to some extent: there would have to be an agency, or an extension of the IRS, or someone, somewhere, to verify that applicants have met the requirement. But presumably someone would be playing that role in any case: checks would not be delivered willy-nilly to every immigrant and dead person in the nation. Even with a verification process, though, this would not be like food stamps and other programs that require month-to-month monitoring: once qualified, a person might remain qualified for life.
The education requirement might displease people who do not possess and are unlikely to acquire college degrees. There may be viable responses to their concerns. One would be to grandfather in those who operate successful businesses, or who are above a certain age (with incentives to postpone enrollment, as with today’s Social Security retirement program); another would be to offer alternative qualification routes (for e.g., people who have completed apprentice training, professional certification, or years of work experience), so as to encourage individuals to seek the most effective training. At the same time, parents who would not themselves qualify might nonetheless be relieved to shed the potential burden of housing or otherwise subsidizing their children after they finish college.
A college-contingent minimum income program could replace not only those welfare-style programs that cater to the poor, but also some higher education functions of today’s U.S. Department of Education, as well as alleviating the existing problem of massive student loan debt. At present, few college students qualify for assistantships, fellowships, or other financial aid plans that defray tuition and provide stipends to cover living expenses. A basic income agency could negotiate and pay up to four years’ worth of part- or full-time tuition, just as other agencies negotiate healthcare expenses. People could qualify for the tuition benefit as soon as they began their college studies, and might again qualify in situations of unemployment later in life. Students who accelerate their studies in high school and college might find that four years of funding extend into graduate school. College dropouts of the past would now have an immediate financial incentive to finish their degrees, and those who drop out for financial reasons need no longer do so. To the extent that the minimum income plan does not pay for itself in savings from consolidation of other governmental programs, it may be possible to cover costs by taxing college graduates (as well as apprentices and others who benefit from the program) at a set rate (e.g., 2% of gross income per year) for a specified time (e.g., 15 years after graduation), with exclusions for those who can afford college without it, and who thus postpone their own entry into the program.
A college-contingent minimum income would not be directly available to children. It could be made available to them indirectly, however, through qualifying parents, in appropriate amounts ending at age 18, at which time the child should be entering college or some other approved training program. There would have to be exemptions for people with disabilities, and no doubt other exemptions as well. This post seeks merely to sketch out the idea; additional discussion and refinement of the concept would be necessary.
Overall, the program would require assorted regulations and procedures — although, again, those procedures would tend to entail one-time determinations as distinct from month-to-month monitoring. There would be a tradeoff: at the cost of some additional complexity, the college-contingent minimum income program would solve problems that a simpler minimum income program would leave unsolved. With or without complexity, a minimum income bureaucracy may be, in any case, a necessary element in the transition from a complicated system to a simple one, helping to consolidate the complex programs of a large nation with relatively little disruption.