Illinois LGBTQ leader calls for a citizen dividend of $570 a year to combat income inequality

Brian Johnson, author of Our Fair Share: How One Small Change Can Create a More Equitable American Economy, in downtown Chicago on Sept. 29, 2021. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

By Nara Schoenberg

When Brian Johnson first started noticing articles about income inequality in 2016, he had his doubts.

The son of an Army officer and the leader of the largest LGBTQ civil rights organization in Illinois, Johnson was a big believer in America and the opportunities it offers. But as he dug in, reading news stories, studies and books, the picture that came into focus wasn’t pretty:

Income for the bottom 50% of U.S. workers had barely budged since 1980, while income for the top 1% had tripled, according to a 2016 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

CEOs, who earned, on average, 20 or 30 times what workers did during much of the 1960s and 1970s, were earning 230 times more by 2011, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute.

There were even signs that economic mobility, that cornerstone of the American Dream, was eroding.

“I couldn’t wrestle with this contradiction in a way I felt comfortable with,” said Johnson, CEO of Equality Illinois.

“Why, in this incredibly diverse, vibrant country, where I personally know our greatest strength is coming together, are we allowing inequality to ramp up at levels we haven’t seen in a century?”

Johnson’s solution, outlined in his new book, “Our Fair Share: How One Small Change Can Create a More Equitable American Economy,” is at once radical in its conception and relatively modest in its demands. Johnson calls for businesses to pay 5% of their profits to fund an annual citizen’s dividend payment of $570 for every American.

The citizen’s dividend, as Johnson frames it, is not a social program such as the better-known (and larger) universal basic income payment, but a right, grounded in the idea that business income stems, in part, from commonly held assets, both tangible (roads, bridges) and intangible (basic cooperation and good behavior).

It follows, according to Johnson, who draws in part on the work of the author Peter Barnes, that businesses owe some of their profits to the public.

Johnson, 44, of Lincoln Square, didn’t set out to write a book. Launched on a personal research mission in 2016, he kept digging in deeper and growing more concerned. Johnson, who advocated for schools in low-income areas before joining Equality Illinois, made a pact with himself: He would write about income inequality for 30 minutes a day, basically just wrestling with his thoughts.

Rising at 4 a.m., he kept his promise to himself, and in five months he had written 35,000 words.

“I think there’s something here,” he said to himself.

The end result is a clear and compelling synthesis of the research supporting his position, interwoven with his own American story and the stories of others involved in social justice work, including the Rev. Clete Kiley, a Chicago priest and director of immigration policy at UNITE HERE, the national hotel and restaurant workers union.

The book includes a discussion of the best-known example of the citizen dividend, the Alaska Permanent Fund, a popular state program in which state oil revenue is invested, with a portion of the profits going directly to residents. Every eligible citizen (adult or child) receives an annual payment; in 2019 the average payment was about $1,600.

Brian Johnson, author of Our Fair Share: How One Small Change Can Create a More Equitable American Economy.
Brian Johnson, author of Our Fair Share: How One Small Change Can Create a More Equitable American Economy. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Johnson said that the citizen dividend isn’t a substitute for the better-known universal basic income payment championed by politicians such as former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. As a more modest payment, the citizen dividend could even serve as a gateway to universal basic income, Johnson said.

Johnson acknowledged that there could be strong resistance, but he also pointed to signs that the larger concept of guaranteed income is gaining momentum.

“We’ve seen a slate of new programs and pilots, mostly under the aegis of universal basic income, the two most famous being in Stockton, California, and Jackson, Mississippi,” he said.

“And then there was last week’s budget presentation from (Mayor Lori Lightfoot), showing she is proposing what would be, I am told, the largest guaranteed income pilot in the country, which would be $500 a month to up to 5,000 low-income Chicagoans (for) a year. So I think there’s real traction.”

He also pointed to COVID stimulus payments, aimed at easing economic hardship caused by the pandemic.

“As a country, we’re starting to wrestle with what types of payments are people owed, or what kind of investments might we want to make in each other,” he said.

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