In recent years, as the possibility that intelligent machines might one day replace virtually all of our jobs has sunk in, the promise of universal basic income (UBI) has gained more mainstream attention, especially in progressive circles. Advocates say that governments should offer universal minimum payments to protect displaced workers from destabilization, poverty, and poor health.
The idea has its detractors, however. Some believe UBI would make otherwise employable people lazy. The concept raises debates about whether handing out cash reduces inequality or encourages dependence—the same debates that have surrounded programs that provide assistance for the poor that former US president Barack Obama expanded and Donald Trump is likely to claw back.
Pilot programs testing the effects and feasibility of the concept are now underway in places more friendly to the idea: California, Finland, and Canada, for example. But these are not UBI’s first field experiments. The US government tested similar income plans five times, beginning in the late 1960s—and the administrator that oversaw the first of these experiments was none other than the Republican veteran Donald Rumsfeld, as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity under US president Richard Nixon.
That year, Rumsfeld, who later would be best known as the controversial Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush, hired a special assistant, Dick Cheney, the man who would go to become Bush’s (loathed by the left) vice president for two terms. Together they supervised the New Jersey Graduated Income Work Experiment, which ran from 1968 to 1971, at the tail end of the “war on poverty” introduced by Lyndon B. Johnson. (Rumsfeld and Cheney’s offices have not responded to Quartz’s requests for comments.)
James Livingston, a history professor at Rutgers University and author of No More Work: Why Full Employment Is A Bad Idea, shared this little-known detail in the history of basic income in a recent interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
“What in the world was going on here?” he said. “It does tell us that there was no left-right distinction for thinking about universal income.”
The much-cited New Jersey project involved more than 1,300 families, some of them living in rural Pennsylvania. The control group was made up of people living below the poverty line who were not offered any subsidies. Families in the experimental group were given federally funded supplements so that their income was at or just above the poverty line.
Among their goals, the researchers were curious about what basic income would do to recipients’ productivity and work ethic. They found that federal payments did little to discourage breadwinners in the families from working: The men who were given a basic income worked one hour less per week, while women reduced their work week by five hours. Mothers in the program spent more time with their children, whose performance at school improved.
The same study was replicated in Gary, Indiana, as well as Seattle and Denver, and all offered evidence that a guaranteed income’s effect on work ethic was “nil,” says Livingston. As the New York Times reported in 1970, Congress was convinced by Rumsfeld’s experiment and approved his proposed measure to replace welfare with this more streamlined system. The Senate didn’t approve the plan, however, and the issue faded. Nixon, too, turned against the idea.
Not everyone would agree with Livingston’s conclusion that the experiments prove UBI is our best hope for a future of more equal economic opportunity. And ultimately, it’s hard to know who’s right: Whether you’re for or against UBI, the data from past basic income trials, including Rumfeld’s and Cheney’s, is shaky at best.