Invest in Human Capital

03/17/2015 01:55 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2015

Shakespeare's quote "What's past is prologue" adorns a sculpture created during the Great Depression that sits outside of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The sculpture itself is called "Future."

That this sculpture and its message greet visitors outside of the building that houses the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, in addition to a copy of the Magna Carta, is fitting for a country that is always looking toward the future. Yet even our wide-eyed optimism cannot prevent tragic departures from the promise of better days ahead. Tragedies such as the Great Depression and Great Recession stoke old animosities, in addition to wasting human skills, labor potential and economic output.

Yet just as recessions come regularly with the business cycle, fresh ideas to mitigate their persistent wasteful effects seem to arise in tandem. During America's battle with the Great Depression and fascism, the Roosevelt administration was active in devising strategies to prevent future global disruptions. Its National Resources Planning Board produced visionary documents that outlined how broader social insurance coverage of working adults and programs geared toward full employment could secure vulnerable Americans, both bolstering them economically and probably decreasing the odds that radically divisive ideas would appeal to them. In Eric Laursen's book The People's Pensions, he writes of how President Truman said "Public assistance was designed as a backstop, a second line of defense, eventually to be replaced by social insurance benefits." Laursen continues, "Charity and public assistance would be replaced by a state-run form of mutual aid. In Truman's vision, 'the dole' would be completely superseded by a societal commitment to a guaranteed, adequate standard of living." Other advocates, such as Robert Theobald, did not see welfare and a basic income as mutually exclusive, according to James Patterson in his book America's Struggle Against Poverty in the Twentieth Century.

The idea of a guaranteed minimum income returned again in the tumultuous sixties and seventies and Martin Luther King Jr. endorsed it. The Johnson administration convened a commission to study the idea. The Nixon administration seriously looked into the proposal as well. But little came of the idea.

The origin of the idea came from an experiment in Speenhamland, England, in the late 18th century that was deemed a failure. The problem is, scholars have argued that it wasn't. Ideas debunking this commonly accepted cultural factoid about the Speenhamland experiment have not gained wider traction within the culture and the myth has stuck. As Block and Summers write:

"The strength of the evidence against the standard Speenhamland stories raises the obvious question of why the past forty years of historical scholarship have not yet had any significant impact on social policy discussions. There are undoubtedly multiple reasons but two are especially compelling. The first is that the Malthusian foundation on which the perversity thesis rests followed the logic of Newtonian physics. Just as Newton explained the causal logic behind the fall of an apple not by the simple appearance of things but by explicating the real, albeit hidden, law of gravity, so Malthus explained the perverse consequences of poor relief not by citing data but by invoking a hidden and constant causal logic."

Though America economic growth is currently up, people still debate the acceptable level of unemployment that qualifies as full employment. And many will claim we are far from the political conditions necessary to pass a universal basic income--an extension of Social Security to cover working age adults--despite its appeal to some on the left and libertarian right. It is no secret that income inequality remains a problem and some poor and minority populations often struggle to find work and have been locked in these conditions for generations.

What I would like to draw attention to is the human side of this debate. As a social worker, I interned at an employment agency for my first year of graduate school. The people I met with were courteous and friendly, as a rule, despite their struggles. Many of our clients faced entry barriers to employment because of criminal backgrounds, lack of work history, discrimination or mistakes they made in the past. Their futures were being held up by these variables and some struggled to survive. The people I met with often struggled to find benefits because of restrictive qualifications. But most of them still wanted to be productive.

A guaranteed minimum income could invest in America's greatest resource: its people. Vast numbers of Americans have intellectual potential that is not being tapped. Educated about America's innovative charters and founding ideas, many American people have to sit on the sidelines while those with more credentials, financial backing and luck are the ones who move the economy forward. Yet ordinary people's creative ideas and fresh thinking are what a knowledge economy thrives on and a guaranteed minimum income could serve as seed money for their start-up ideas. Giving money to poor people has borne entrepreneurial results in social experiments. While not everybody would use the money this way, legislators could build in incentive structures to entice people to do so.

The guarantee need not prevent people from working; income from work could be earned on top of it or the guarantee could fade out when a certain work income level is reached. There are many plans out there with many stipulations. (There are even a plethora of names for the idea.) But the plans all have one thing in common: they invest in human capital and hold Americans to the highest standard of all, the expectation that each life has value and each person has a valuable contribution to make to this country.

If the past teaches us anything, it is that each plan also carries with it is a legacy of being a hot topic during interesting times that eventually people forgot about or became too afraid to mention when the economy got moving again. From the time when the policy was first seriously considered in the late 18th century in Speenhamland, England, to today, it carries with it a legacy of dashed dreams and expectations, the very things the idea and its proponents hope to alleviate.

While Shakespeare has the indecisive Hamlet say his famous line sarcastically, I quote it with a hopeful vision for the future: "What a piece of work is man!" It is time we earnestly invest in the human potential we all have, regardless of work.