The Case for a Guaranteed Annual Income

By Paul Dribin

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I predict that most readers of this article are people who care about poverty. Many build and manage affordable housing. Many of us entered this field because we wanted to help improve the lives of people with low incomes and the communities around them. I have worked in the field my whole adult life and have loved the work and the colleagues I’ve worked with.

I have concluded my career by surmising something I’ve been aware of for a long time: that housing alone is not sufficient to conquer poverty. Many projects have provided supportive services with some degree of success. But I believe we need to take things to the next level.

The next step is providing a guaranteed minimum income for everyone at or below 100% of the area median income. This income source would have no strings attached and would be used as a wage supplement.

This policy would have some obvious and not-so-obvious advantages for community and urban development.

First, poverty can be greatly eliminated with cash transfers to lower income households. These families would end up spending most of their money on goods and services, thereby stimulating local and national economies.

Second, housing segregation would be diminished. These funds would enable individuals to live where they wanted, thereby better dispersing poor people to neighborhoods of opportunity. Our present system of affordable housing accomplishes little in dispersing low income individuals across the metropolitan area.

Third, cash transfers would greatly increase the demand for housing, thereby spurring new construction and rehabilitation of existing neighborhoods.

Fourth, I believe it will diminish crime, because low-income people will have an opportunity to be better dispersed around the metro area, not forced to live in high-crime areas. Additionally, higher incomes can contribute to a lessening of crime.

Finally, a guaranteed annual income would be good for communities primarily because it’s the most efficient and effective way to help community members out of poverty. Here are a few reasons why.

  • Our experience with income transfer programs verify this case for a guaranteed annual income. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has reported that the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit took 8.9 million people out of poverty and made 19.3 million individuals less poor. Social Security took 22,068,000 people out of poverty. This data was for the year 2016. Income transfer programs are efficient: virtually 100% of the funds spent go directly to the recipient.

  • The largest housing production program, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, is neither efficient nor effective. It is not efficient because large amounts of the funds allocated go to third parties rather than to the client. It is ineffective because it does not house those who need it the most, people with very low incomes.

  • Large-scale income transfers would generate demand for the construction and rehabilitation of apartment housing. I would recommend a beefed-up HUD financing program that is simpler and quicker to process.

  • Income transfers avoid the problem of community resistance to affordable housing. People are supported instead of projects, and unlike the case with the Housing Choice Voucher Program, landlords would deal totally with the tenant for the rent. Racial and economic integration would be easier.

  • Transfer programs have almost no administrative burdens and give clients the most choices.

Critics will say a program such as this has little chance of passing and is too expensive. I believe it will appeal to political conservatives more than programs with extensive federal rules. It would reinforce conservative efforts to stimulate employment, because people could work in lower wage jobs and be subsidized.

There should be a vigorous discussion of a proposal like this one. It is safe to say that the housing programs we have utilized in the past have not accomplished the end of poverty. Many housing providers I’ve worked with have admitted to me in private that an income distribution program would work far better than a housing program. If we want to increase the health and prosperity of our communities and the residents who live in them, we should adopt a guaranteed annual income.


Paul Dribin has worked most recently as a housing and community development consultant. He previously served with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for 30 years in a variety of positions. Paul has frequently been called to Washington, D.C. to advise senior staff on policy development and evaluation. He has a B.A. in political science from Roosevelt University and an M.A. in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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