Opinion: It’s time for a citizen dividend
Guaranteed income programs are popping up all over the United States. It’s time to expand beyond local pilot programs and embrace a nationwide Citizen Dividend, an annual distribution of a share of corporate profits to every American, to tackle rising economic inequality and stay true to our deepest American values.
Three years ago, perhaps the only widely known U.S. guaranteed income program was the Alaska Permanent Fund, which makes annual payments to each Alaskan funded by state oil and gas revenues. In recent years, pilot programs giving between $ 500 and $ 1,000 per month to low-income residents have been implemented or offered in Stockton, California; Jackson, Mississippi; Phoenix; Pittsburgh; and Chicago.
Perhaps the simplest, most extensive and easy to implement form of guaranteed income that we could adopt would be the citizen dividend. The debate around guaranteed income often boils down to two basic questions: who deserves the income and how can we pay it? With a national citizen dividend, we answer these two questions clearly and convincingly.
First, who deserves this income? We all do. No business in this country makes a profit without using the wealth we all have together – our natural resources; our societal resources such as our roads, our public safety and our education system; and our legacy systems like our Constitution and our courts. Each citizen has an equal share of ownership in these forms of collective wealth. Therefore, every American deserves a share of the profits made from their use. Of course, individual hard work, talent and a good strategy contribute to the success of the company. Imagine trying to create value without energy, without roads, without courts and without an educated workforce. It would be downright impossible.
Second, how do you pay for this income? A citizen dividend is financed by one form of our collective prosperity: corporate profits. Companies should keep 95% of their profits to invest in growth, return wealth to private shareholders and pay the government for the services our society needs (eg taxes). But 5% of those profits should go to every American in recognition of the collective wealth that has been used to create those profits.
Easy to understand and clear in its financing, a citizen dividend would have a significant positive impact on the lives of Americans and on the fabric of our economy. Using 2015 estimates of corporate net income, a citizen dividend could earn every American $ 570 each year – or more than $ 2,200 for a family of four. This payment – which equates to nearly two months of rent or food for the median American family – could avert some of the harshest impacts of rising inequality. But perhaps more importantly, it would challenge the false narrative that profit is created simply by individual action and that wealth should be accumulated by those who have the ability to do so. Instead, it would strengthen a deeper American history, that we are the best as a nation when we come together across all our differences to lead the way to a common future.
A citizen dividend brings the spirit of our country’s first currency to life – E Pluribus Unum – among many, one. It’s time we recognized what truly belongs to every American and be bold in our drive to build an economy that reflects our best values. It’s time for a citizen dividend.
Brian C. Johnson is the CEO of Equality Illinois and the author of Our Fair Share: How One Small Change Can Create More EquityBrian C. Johnson has served in education and advocacy, community organizing, and political activism at the local and national levels for two decades, dedicated to America’s promise of equity for all. It has been featured on CNN and in The Washington Post, United States today, and The New York Times. Johnson is currently CEO of Equality Illinois, one of the nation’s most successful LGBTQ civil rights organizations. He lives with his husband and their daughter in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois.