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:

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.