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Money for nothing and the checks for free


There are no free lunches. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. Everybody has to pitch in and carry their weight.

These aphorisms from my youth, passed on by my parents and others from their generation who survived the Great Depression during their childhood, pop into my mind each time I hear about a new government plan to give people free money.

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang proposed a plan in which all citizens of working age, regardless of their income, would get $1,000 checks each month from the federal government.

Las Cruces City Council member Johanna Bencomo has now proposed a new city program in which low-income residents would receive a “guaranteed basic income,” through direct payments from the city government. She wants to start with a small group of residents in a pilot program first.

Details are still being worked out, but Bencomo said she would like to see those selected for the pilot program get at least $500 a month, which they could spend any way they wanted. She said similar programs elsewhere have led to improved health outcomes and employment opportunities for participants.

And, I don’t doubt a pilot program here would have the same result, assuming we picked the right people for the program.

Bencomo’s plan is to take the money from existing funds. That will work for now, but the program would need a recurring funding source to be sustainable.

But beyond the question of if we can, is the much larger question of if we should. More specifically, if we give people money for not working, will that reduce their incentive to work? And if that happens, what will it mean for our nation’s productivity?

The $600-a-month boost to unemployment benefits made available through the federal CARES Act has led to millions of workers opting to delay their return to the workplace, while employers desperate to get up and running again after the pandemic are scrambling to find help.

I understand the argument for a guaranteed basic income. The federal minimum wage has been frozen at $7.25 an hour since 2009. Union membership has been decimated by right-to-work laws, with barely 10 percent of the workforce now enjoying representation. As a result, the wealth gap in the United States has increased to indefensible levels.

According to the Pew Research Institute, in the years 2001 to 2016, upper-income families saw their wealth increase by 33 percent. Middle-income families saw their wealth shrink by 20 percent, while those at the bottom experienced a 45 percent loss.

Since 2016, the Trump tax cut and the pandemic have both combined to make the wealth gap even wider. I understand that millions of people need help. And, I’m sparing my tears for employers who have steadfastly opposed any increase to the minimum wage and are now having a hard time finding workers.

I fully support increased spending on childcare services, job training, rental assistance, affordable housing and emergency food programs. I agree that wages need to be higher and employees need stronger workplace protections.

The playing field has been tilted in favor of the rich and the wealthy for too long. It’s shameful that a nation as wealthy as ours has so many people living on the streets, without the security of shelter or the comfort of knowing where their next meal will come from.

We absolutely need to do better. But money for nothing? Free checks in the mail each month just for being? I’m still having a hard time with that one.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com

Walt Rubel