Education and Skills

This novel idea could tackle inequality, and it starts with giving new-born babies $20,000

A woman pushes a pram along the embankment in the Black Sea resort town of Alushta March 11, 2014. Ukraine's Crimean peninsular evokes in many Russians and citizens of the former Soviet Union memories of summer holidays in the resorts and sanatoriums along its subtropical Black Sea coast. Crimea is also the place from where Christianity spread throughout what was then called Kievan Rus', a federation of Slavic tribes that later became Russia.  REUTERS/Thomas Peter (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY TRAVEL TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - GM1EA3C0B3J01

Torsten Slok, Deutsche Bank's chief international economist, calls Baby Bonds an “intriguing” idea. Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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Forget baby showers. There's a proposal to give every newborn in the United States a “Baby Bond” account with somewhere between $500 to $50,000 in cash. Neither the kids nor their parents would be able to touch the money until the child turned 18. Then the young adult could spend the trust fund on attending college, buying a home or starting a business.

The whole point of Baby Bonds would be to dramatically lessen wealth inequality in the United States, according to the economists who came up with the idea, Darrick Hamilton of the New School and William Darity of Duke University.

“The key ingredient of how successful you will be in America is how wealthy your family is,” Hamilton says. Baby Bonds are one way to change that, he argues. He presented the idea at the American Economic Association conference in Philadelphia this weekend.

Under the proposal, kids of incredibly rich parents such as Bill and Melinda Gates or Beyoncé and Jay-Z would get the lowest amount, $500, while babies born into extremely poor families would get the highest amount, $50,000. There would be a sliding scale to determine how much each baby would received based on the parents' wealth. A typical middle-class baby would receive around $20,000.

While there are a number of criticisms about Baby Bonds, especially how to pay for them, presidents and prime ministers around the world are trying to figure out ways to reduce inequality. In the United States, inequality is back at the levels of the 1920s' Gilded Age. It's gotten so bad that Wall Street firms are warning their clients to pay attention to it, because inequality is driving the rise of populism. Torsten Slok, Deutsche Bank's chief international economist, says the United States and other nations are going to need creative thinking to address this. He called Baby Bonds an “intriguing” idea.

According to Deutsche Bank, nearly a third of American households now have $0 in wealth, the worst situation since the U.S. government began keeping track of that statistic (wealth outside a home) in the early 1960s.

Families of color have struggled especially hard to try to move up the socioeconomic ladder. The median net worth of white households is 10 times that of African American households'.

“People like to argue if only poor black and Latino families were more responsible and made better decisions, then inequality could be dramatically reduced,” Hamilton says. But years of data and real-life evidence don't support that. Hamilton points to the fact that most college-educated African Americans have less net wealth than whites who dropped out of high school.

Image: Deutsche Bank

To some, Baby Bonds sound too radical for the Unites States. But Britain tried a similar plan in which every child born between 2002 and 2010 received a modest “Child Trust Fund” of 250 to 1,000 pounds. The plan was axed during the Great Recession because of funding concerns.

In the United States, Hillary Clinton endorsed a version of Baby Bonds in her 2008 presidential run, proposing to give all babies born in the United States $5,000 to be used for college or buying a home.

“I like the idea of giving every baby born in America a $5,000 account that will grow over time, so that when that young person turns 18, if they have finished high school, they will be able to access it to go to college, or maybe they will be able to make that down payment on their first home,” Clinton said at the time.

Hamilton says Clinton didn't go far enough. A few thousand is barely enough to pay for a semester at some community colleges. But the higher the amount of the Baby Bond goes, the greater the cost for the federal government.

“My first instinct in thinking about Baby Bonds is: How are you going to pay for it?” says economist Veronique de Rugy, a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center, a free-market-oriented think tank.

Hamilton estimates Baby Bonds would cost $80 billion a year, or about 2 percent of the United States' $4 trillion in annual federal government spending. If implemented, the first payments wouldn't go out for 18 years, so there could be time to build up a budget for it.

When asked where the money would come from, Hamilton points to all the incentives in the tax code, such as the mortgage interest deduction, that mainly go to wealthy families who don't need the money, although the recent debate over the Republican tax bill illustrated how hard it is to take away tax breaks for housing.

Critics also flag concerns about the formula to determine how much each baby gets and all the rules about when and how the money could be spent when a child turns 18. De Rugy doesn't like “paternalistic” proposals where the government restricts how the money can be spent. “People, even poor people, know what is best for them,” she says. She says some on the right might get on board, but only if Baby Bonds replaced some other welfare programs to help low-income households. Hamilton doesn't want to do that.

“Baby Bonds are like Social Security, but for young adults,” Hamilton says. “This is not meant to replace our entire social safety net.”

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But there's a growing belief that something needs to be done about inequality. Top business and political leaders are set to meet in Davos, Switzerland, this month. The theme for this year's meeting is “creating a shared future in a fractured world,” with many of the discussion panels focused on what to do to lift the fortunes of those left behind.

Deutsche Bank put out an 80-page report last week full of charts illustrating how life for the 1 percent is great, life for the top 10 percent is pretty good and life for just about everyone else isn't much better financially than it was in the 1970s. By many measures, it's gotten worse for the bottom 90 percent.

“Inequality is likely a key source of populism in many countries,” says Slok, the economist at Deutsche Bank. “Many of our clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia are asking us: What is the next populist step if these inequality trends are not reversed? What kinds of candidates are we going to see?”

It's very difficult to predict revolutions or social unrest. Slok isn't saying that will happen, but he says it's become a hot discussion topic in Wall Street circles in which many were caught off guard by Brexit and Donald Trump's election victory. Before joining the investment bank, Slok traveled the world for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Monetary Fund advising countries on how to solve problems, including inequality. He's quick to say there's no easy solution to a problem as complex as inequality.

“There is no Holy Grail. There is no easy answer to inequality,” Slok says. Some say education and technology will solve the problems; others advocate raising taxes and redistributing wealth. Slok says the reality is almost every major economy is getting worse right now, so nobody seems to have the right playbook.

One of the most alarming charts in the Deutsche Bank report shows how people under 55 have far less wealth at this age than past generations did in the 1980s or early 2000s. It's another reminder how much the middle class is falling behind, even compared with their parents and grandparents.

Image: Deutsche Bank

Improving the lives and finances of the bottom 90 percent is likely to take some dramatic changes, which is why Slok was interested in hearing more about the Baby Bond idea.

Baby Bonds have a lot of similarities to universal basic income, which has generated a lot of buzz as a possible solution if robots cause mass job losses. The idea is to pay everyone $15,000 or so a year, enough to prevent anyone from starving but still low enough to incentivize people to try to work or start companies.

Universal basic income and Baby Bonds are both ways of leveling the playing field, but the key difference is Baby Bonds are cheaper, because the money goes out only once to an individual, not year after year. In the United States, a universal basic income would probably cost over $1 trillion a year, compared with an estimated $80 million a year for Baby Bonds.

“Wealth gives you choice. Wealth gives you freedom. Wealth gives you opportunity,” Hamilton says. “But it takes wealth to beget more wealth.”

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