Entrepreneur and political novice Andrew Yang is hoping a wild gambit will help him win the Democratic presidential nomination: give 10 American families US$1,000 a month.
The announcement of a test run of his signature universal basic income proposal, which Yang argues is necessary to counter automation’s threat to millions of American jobs, garnered cheers from the student audience at the September debate and gave his candidacy a boost. At least half a million people have entered Yang’s basic income raffle.
Although he called his idea “unprecedented,” that’s not entirely true. It’s a direct echo of the Townsend Plan, the brainchild of another political novice who also believed that the solution to economic disruption and automation almost a century ago was to guarantee an income.
I wrote a book about that plan, the organization behind it and the man who promoted it throughout the country. I found that in times of economic insecurity, simple, straightforward guaranteed income proposals can be highly influential, even if they aren’t ultimately adopted.
Townsend’s Income Guarantee
In 1934, Dr. Francis Everett Townsend was a 66-year-old unemployed physician living in Long Beach, California.
He claimed that when he saw older women rooting around in his trash for food, an idea hit him: The federal government should guarantee an income of $200 per month – about $3,700 today – for Americans 60 years and older who agreed to stop working. Not only would their money worries end, he reasoned, but their renewed consumer spending would jump-start the economy and their retirement would reduce competition for jobs.