Lately there has been some renewed discussion of the concept of "basic income" -- an unconditional flat-amount regular payment from the government to each citizen, guaranteeing a minimal level of income below which no one can fall. The Washington Post has a good discussion of the idea here.
The unconditional nature of the payments is an important part of the concept -- everyone gets the same, whether it's a homeless person or a wage employee or Mitt Romney. This would eliminate the most persuasive conservative objection to similar but means-tested schemes -- the claim that they would create a disincentive to work since wages from a job would just replace the government income and provide little or no net benefit to the worker (such a means-tested government income is called "minimum income", a different concept from "basic income"). If the basic income is $20,000 per year and you get a job paying $10,000 a year, your government check is not reduced; the job income is simply added on top of it, bringing your total income to $30,000 a year. The incentive to work is still there; only the threat of abject poverty is removed.
Basic income has the advantage of simplicity. Means-tested payments require rules, enforcement mechanisms, and a Byzantine bureaucratic system to administer same, greatly increasing the cost of the program. A small-scale test of unconditional payments in London in 2009 yielded encouraging results.
It's highly absurd, of course, to imagine basic income getting enacted by the US government as it exists today, but at some point in the future when the Republican party is either reduced to insignificance or purged of extremists, it's not impossible that moderate conservatives could be brought on board. President Nixon's 1969 FAP proposal and Milton Friedman's earlier negative income tax idea show that such ideas have not always been anathema on the right. One red state, Alaska, already has basic income at a low level. The low administrative costs of an unconditional system would be something of a selling point.
Basic income at a reasonable level would require far higher tax revenues, of course. With today's Republican party, this is a non-starter; but if and when we get around to seriously addressing the problem of skyrocketing inequality, it will be a feature rather than a bug.
Basic income would also help us address another issue which most people are only just beginning to understand -- the technological transition of the economy. For decades now, jobs at the lower end of the skill scale have been drying up as automation either replaces human workers or makes processes so efficient that fewer workers are needed to produce the same output. And the trend is escalating. Our main response has been to push for broader access to education so that more people can do the remaining more-skilled jobs. Education is a good thing in itself, but as a response to the automation of work, this fundamentally misses the point. Technological progress is accelerating relentlessly, and the rate at which more and more kinds of work can be done more efficiently by machines than by people is accelerating too. It's been estimated that 45% of the jobs that exist today will be automated out of existence in the next 20 years -- in reality, I expect the process to be even faster than that -- and it won't stop there.
The logical end-point is a society where almost all production of wealth is done by machines, without any need for human labor. (Eric Drexler's concept of molecular manufacturing is a single, possibly-feasible technology which could get us to that point all by itself.) It would be the embodiment of what has traditionally been proclaimed impossible -- the free lunch, a society where everyone consumes but no one produces.
Our current model, based on production of wealth by human labor in exchange for pay, works. The future model, where production of wealth is done by machines and distribution of wealth is done by some means independent of labor (which no longer exists) will also work. The problem is managing the transition from one to the other. Unemployment will have to be made less catastrophic as it becomes inevitable for more and more people on the way to becoming a social norm. Mystical concepts about the "dignity of labor" and the stigma of living without working will have to be swept away.
Basic income would be an ideal mechanism for managing the transition. Even if it starts off as an anti-poverty measure, it would normalize the concept of income independent of work. As ever more workers are no longer able to find conventional jobs due to automation, basic income will become more politically popular and entrenched and make up a growing share of the economy. As we reach the end of the transition and traditional work becomes obsolete, it will be able to evolve into a system for distributing the wealth whose production has become decoupled from human activity.
It's important not to give up thinking about basic income just because it's politically impossible today. Accelerating technological progress will always be with us. The present configuration of politics won't.