American Indians

When a Citizens' Dividend Sets Off Citizenship Disputes

Another living example of a basic-income policy.


I've complained here before about the ways the argument over a universal basic income often ignores basic-income-style policies that actually exist in the world. The last time I said this, I was pointing to the dividend checks that the state of Alaska distributes to its citizens. Here's another example: Of the nearly 240 tribes that run gambling operations, the AP reports that "half distribute a regular per-capita payout to their members."

Supporters of basic income grants will be happy to hear that such payouts have been a real help for low-income Indians. They might be a bit shaken by another apparent effect of the policy. From that AP story:

Not seeking members.

Mia Prickett's ancestor was a leader of the Cascade Indians along the Columbia River and was one of the chiefs who signed an 1855 treaty that helped establish the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon.

But the Grand Ronde now wants to disenroll Prickett and 79 relatives, and possibly hundreds of other tribal members, because they no longer satisfy new enrollment requirements.

Prickett's family is fighting the effort, part of what some experts have dubbed the "disenrollment epidemic"—a rising number of dramatic clashes over tribal belonging that are sweeping through more than a dozen states, from California to Michigan….

[I]n Michigan, where Saginaw Chippewa membership grew once the tribe started giving out yearly per-capita casino payments that peaked at $100,000, a recent decline in gambling profits led to disenrollment battles targeting hundreds.

The Grand Ronde, which runs Oregon's most profitable Indian gambling operation, also saw a membership boost after the casino was built in 1995, from about 3,400 members to more than 5,000 today. The tribe has since tightened membership requirements twice, and annual per-capita payments decreased from about $5,000 to just over $3,000.

The article notes that the "tribes deny money is a factor in disenrollment and say they're simply trying to strengthen the integrity of their membership." And there's certainly some truth to that: Not all of these battles have taken place within tribes that issue payouts to their members. But it's easy to see that reducing a tribe's membership rolls means more money for the people left over, and it's hard not to notice that this wave of battles began just as casino wealth started taking off in the 1990s.

The fact that a citizens' dividend can encourage conflicts over citizenship seems significant. So is the question of why such disputes would emerge in some places but not in others. And moving past that one issue, I'm sure the casino profit-sharing experience is full of relevant lessons that hardly anyone's aware of because hardly anyone's bothered to look at it with this topic in mind. People need to stop thinking of the basic income as just a what-if exercise or a policy debate from the past. It's a living experiment producing data as we speak.

NEXT: Bankers Still Wary of Accepting Legal Marijuana Trade Money

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  1. Elizabeth Warren wants a check.

  2. Isn’t a “citizens dividend” functionally equivalent to the (paltry) “standard deduction” on income taxes? Maybe if we just have a standard deduction that is based on actual, minimal living expenses we’d have a more sensible system in the first place.

    1. Nope. You have to earn income to make use of the standard deduction.

  3. I’m a supporter of guaranteed minimum income/negative income tax, but even I can see that steady cash flow is a problem. Sluggish economic periods when tax revenues are low are exactly when people would rely on transfer payments the most.

    The solution in any sphere of reality would be to reallocate funds from other expenses to cover shortfalls in the basic necessities, but the way Washington runs I imagine many hundreds of welfare dependents would starve before cuts happened to our benevolent overlords’ pet programs.

  4. battle over wampum. Me big surprised.

  5. Membership is more than just a cash payment. It’s a ticket to all of the bennies administered by the tribal slush fundgovernment: housing and employment assistance being the main ones, and exemption from state income tax.

  6. Who could have foreseen that dividing a fixed pot of money among a group of people could create incentives to kick people out of the group?

  7. As we’ve found, it’s a short walk from giving everyone a social security card to building 20-foot tall fences on the border.

  8. There was an episode of Longmire about this phenomenon.

  9. Good to see Reason use the term I coined in 1981, “Citizens’ Dividend”, and to use it correctly. It’s meaning and background got mangled at Wikipedia. People consistently confuse this CD, which is a share of a surplus (as are all dividends) with a “basic income”, which is a stipend whose amount is set by political fiat. Sorting that out at Wiki is another thing to do ? someday.

    Hopefully I’ll get to it while it still matters, before most nations are paying their citizens dividends! And no longer subsidizing special interests. And not taxing our efforts. And only recovering the socially-generated values of land, resources, ecosystem services, and government-granted privileges such as corporate charters … using geonomics in general.

    Recovering all those “rents” not only gives the CD heft it also makes it possible to streamline government and the economy. Finally, everyone could get a life, not just a handful of lucky tribal members. Starting at

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