Giving every American adult $1,000 a month may sound like a gimmick or too good to be true, but Andrew Yang says it’s a "deeply American idea" dating back centuries.
"Thomas Paine was for it at our founding, called it the citizen’s dividend. Martin Luther King, champion in the ‘60s, called it a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans, and it is what he was fighting for on the day he was killed in 1968," Yang told Iowa voters on Sept. 21. "A thousand economists endorsed it. It passed the U.S. House of Representatives twice in 1971."
Yang, an entrepreneur seeking the Democratic nomination for president, has made similar claims on Twitter and while debating fellow Democrats.
Yang’s Freedom Dividend plan is a form of universal basic income, guaranteeing $1,000 a month to every U.S. citizen over 18 years old, without having to pass a test or meet a work requirement.
PolitiFact decided to look into the history of universal basic income, particularly Yang’s reference to Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King, Jr., and 1970s legislation. We found that his comparisons are broadly correct, but not precise.
Paine wrote that Earth in its "natural uncultivated state" was the common property of the human race. He believed that cultivation and private land ownership deprived non-landowners of their "natural inheritance."
Paine suggested a national fund to compensate individuals for that loss, whether they were rich or poor. He proposed a one-time payment of 15 pounds to every person when they turned 21 years old; and that every person aged 50, and all others who arrived at that age, be paid 10 pounds annually for the rest of their lives.
Paine’s proposal in the 1790s pamphlet Agrarian Justice was in some ways an early version of the Social Security program and has an element of universal basic income, said Harvey J. Kaye, a democracy and justice studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. But it wasn’t the same thing.
Also, Paine’s plan wasn't published at the founding of the United States in 1776 but about two decades later, inspired by the French Revolution, said Gary Berton, coordinator for the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College and secretary of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association. Paine also never used the term "citizen's dividend" in relation to his proposal (he called it "the plan"), Berton said.
It is true that King supported a guaranteed income in his 1967 book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" But he wasn’t explicitly advocating for it on the day he was killed.
King wrote that past approaches to fighting poverty (particularly housing programs, education, and family counseling) were not coordinated, developed at different rates, and were indirect approaches to solving poverty.
"I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income," King wrote.
Yang is on solid footing in claiming that King sought a form of guaranteed income, even if King is not well known for that position, said Doug E. Thompson, a history professor and director of the Spencer B. King Jr. Center for Southern Studies at Mercer University.
King was killed April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn. He was there to prepare for a march on behalf of sanitation workers who were striking and advocating for better working conditions and better pay. King saw the strike as a good way to highlight the need for his Poor People’s Campaign, Thompson said.
"Guaranteed income was not on the table in Memphis as much as the plight of folks who worked hard in the U.S. but could not overcome the wealth gaps that kept poor people in cycles of poverty," Thompson said. "It would have been an outgrowth of Memphis, but not its central focus."
The House in 1970 and 1971 passed bills that "were as close as the U.S. has come to passing something resembling a universal basic income," said Brian Steensland, professor and chair of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
The New York Times in April 1970 reported that the Democrat-led House voted 243-155 for President Richard Nixon’s revision of the welfare system, establishing "for the first time the principle that the government should guarantee every family a minimum annual income, even if one or more of its members is working." The proposal included a work requirement. In June 1971, the House again voted 288-132 for an omnibus bill that included a proposal to guarantee families an annual income.
While there was wide interest in the 1960s and early 1970s for a "guaranteed annual income," the specifics of what the term meant, the proposals, and related discourse changed over time.
"Nixon’s plan was more ‘conservative’ than many of the available guaranteed annual income plans at the time, and his rhetoric was more conservative than the plans themselves," Steensland said. "His rhetoric was very work-oriented. Nixon constantly referenced moving people from the ‘welfare rolls’ to the ‘payrolls,’ though in fact many of the recipients would have received income from both sources."
Another key point about the Nixon plan: It was based on a negative income tax model, meaning the total amount distributed would have depended on recipients’ income level. Universal basic income proposals, like Yang’s, seek to give everyone a flat amount, regardless of how much money they make.
Yang said about universal basic income, "Thomas Paine was for it at our founding.... Martin Luther King, champion in the ‘60s, called it a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans… It passed the U.S. House of Representatives twice in 1971."
Paine supported a one-time payment to all individuals when they reached 21 and a version of today’s Social Security program. King advocated for a guaranteed minimum income. The House passed something close to universal basic income once in 1970 and once in 1971, not twice in 1971.
Overall, Yang’s statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information. We rate it Mostly True.