A journalist who focuses on economic policy explores the idea of reducing poverty through recurring government payments to every adult citizen.
The concept of a “universal basic income” seems straightforward. As Atlantic contributing editor Lowrey writes, “it is universal, in the sense that every resident of a given community or country receives it. It is basic, in that it is just enough to live on and not more. And it is income.” The author explores UBI proposals from three angles: how the money could affect the desire for employment, the effectiveness of the payments in helping to ameliorate poverty, and how well the payments would bring about social inclusion within given community. Much of Lowrey’s exploration is theoretical since UBI experiments are few and far between. Her research took her to often isolated, impoverished areas of Kenya, India, and the United States. In the U.S., the author writes about how many of the impoverished citizens she met had previously functioned well economically, partly because workers could join labor unions that advocated successfully for decent wages, on-the-job safety regulations, affordable health care, payment of school tuitions, sick leaves, maternity and paternity leaves, and the like. As employers dismantled unions—often abetted by Republican presidents and members of Congress—without punishment, an increasing number of laborers became unemployed or underemployed. Some ended up bankrupt and/or homeless. Outside of the U.S., Lowrey’s findings are murkier. The laws and customs of different nations vary widely, and the concept of “poverty” means something different—and is far more consequential—to families that cannot afford to put food on the table or find suitable housing. Pilot programs in portions of Mexico and Brazil had led to further experiments in other nations, but interpreting the minimal data from the experiments feels premature. For now, though, Lowrey offers a good starting point.
A useful primer on a highly contentious topic.