working poor Viewminder/Flickr

Minimum Wage or Living Income?

As robots increasingly replace human labor, humans will need incomes to replace wages from work. That is why the idea of an unconditional basic income, long advocated by free-market and socialist thinkers alike, is a measure whose time has come.

LONDON – Most rich countries now have millions of “working poor” – people whose jobs do not pay enough to keep them above the poverty line, and whose wages therefore have to be subsidized by the state. These subsidies take the form of tax credits.

The idea is a very old one. England implemented its “Speenhamland” system – a form of outdoor relief intended to offset rising bread prices – during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1795, the authorities of Speenhamland, a village in Berkshire, authorized a means-tested sliding scale of wage supplements. The supplements that families received varied with the number of children and the price of bread.

But the scheme was criticized for allowing employers to pay below-subsistence wages, because the taxpayer would make up the difference. In 1834, the Speenhamland system was replaced by the New Poor Law, which confined relief to workhouses, under conditions sufficiently odious to force people back into the labor market.

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