Marco Rubio’s Secret Plan for a Guaranteed Minimum Income

Last month my coauthor addressed the idea of a guaranteed minimum income; the idea would be to replace America’s hodgepodge of welfare programs with a flat (probably monthly) cash payment to every citizen. There’s an enormous amount of things to like about this concept but Richard rightly noted one enormous problem: political implementation. Specifically, it would be very difficult to avoid what he described as “feature creep”; the slow addition of specific welfare programs to supplement the guaranteed minimum income, to the point that you’d be stuck with what amounted to the current welfare state plus a guaranteed minimum income, not instead of it.

I agree that this is a huge concern affecting an otherwise excellent policy, which is why I was so intrigued to discover Marco Rubio’s (0f all people) proposal from January this year (yes, I am a bit late to this party) to, “turn Washington’s anti-poverty programs–and the trillions spent on them–over to the states.” Under the Senator’s plan states would receive block grants from the Federal government which could then be spent as the state saw fit on anti-poverty programs of its own design. It’s not clear if Rubio intends this to be a backdoor through which a guaranteed minimum income program could slip, but there’s good reason to view it that way nonetheless (perhaps one of the fifty states would try something along those lines if given the chance).

It seems Rubio imagines his program would operate through a consolidated Federal agency which funnels to states cash equivalent to the value of the Federal welfare (meant broadly) dollars its residents would have received otherwise. Then states can decide on an individual basis how those funds actually reach their intended targets, and as mentioned above, it wouldn’t shock me if at least one state decided to offer its residents a consolidated payment instead of maintaining separate programs. But what if you flipped the script and used this as a way to institute a guaranteed minimum income without the problems of feature creep?

Instead of the Federal government giving states lump-sum payments by way of a single agency, it could continue on paper to operate its current alphabet soup of anti-poverty programs. But rather than disbursing these funds to citizens directly the Federal government could, under the on-paper auspices of Medicare, Social Security, etc, disburse them to states but with the provision that they reach citizens as a single cash transfer. This way, citizens get all the benefits of a guaranteed minimum income, but politically speaking we’re still running things like Medicare as separate entities and avoiding the danger of tacking on benefits to a minimum income after the fact. The benefits are the minimum income! This is almost certainly needlessly complex, and unlikely to be politically palatable on the basis of its apparent complexity. Actually, perhaps the only way you could get it done would be to frame it as an elaborate bureaucratic reshuffle, something too boring for people to bother getting worked up about. Reform by soporifia isn’t much of a rallying cry, but if it results in a guaranteed minimum income I’d be willing to try it.