Spotlight Exclusives

Exploring the Future of UBI: A Conversation with Annie Lowrey

Annie Lowrey, The Atlantic Annie Lowrey, The Atlantic, posted on

From interest in Silicon Valley to pilots in the US and around the world, the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is generating increased attention and emerging as a potentially important tool in the fight against poverty. Annie Lowrey, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, explores the momentum around the idea of UBI and its potential impact in her new book Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World. Spotlight recently spoke with her about the support for UBI, its potential impacts, and whether we can expect to see more politicians and policymakers embracing the idea. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why UBI? How’d you get interested in this topic.

Right now, you have all this interest from Silicon Valley from people who are concerned they’re creating technology that will hurt people by putting them out of work. There’s also a lot of interest from low-income countries to use this as a mechanism to help poor people, and then there’s interest from folks on the far left in western Europe. I came across this before, but the peaking of all three factors in the past couple years really caught my interest

Why has there been so much enthusiasm from Silicon Valley?

Much of Silicon Valley is working on AI and automation that could destroy a lot of jobs, and I think they got really afraid of, ‘what if we have 50 percent or even just 10 percent unemployment?’ We would need something to support people. So that’s how they came to the idea of UBI.

I think if we had IT replacing jobs we’d be able to see that—increased productivity plus rising unemployment plus rising GDP. I don’t think we currently see that, but if we saw it in 50-100 years, how would that change our conception of the government’s duty?

We’ve seen suspicion of this idea from many corners, including from some traditional anti-poverty experts. Why, and is that changing?

People who are less expert on the subject tend to have a knee-jerk and understandable opposition to someone getting benefits for nothing. It’s the give-a-man-a-fish versus teach-a-man-to-fish idea.

Some might say, “Sure, you can give people a check, but is that really helping them?” We do have a lot of evidence that getting people out of poverty through cash has a lot of real benefits—healthier kids, more stable families. Liberals and libertarians are on the side of let’s give people cash, whereas I think for Republicans, you see a lot more skepticism still. You see this in the way in which the Trump administration as well as congressional and state Republicans are making programs more contingent on work requirements, drug tests, etc.

What about the concern from some progressives that we’d have to dismantle the existing safety net to pay for UBI?

That concern should feel very distant; no one is really talking about implementing this as policy immediately. However, it does get to a real tension. If UBI is universal, it’s not progressive—it’s not just giving help to the people who really need it. You could keep other form of progressive redistribution alongside UBI.

Can you give an example of how this would work in a more progressive way?

There were some experiments in the US from the 60s to the 80s; for example, the Denver income maintenance and Seattle income maintenance programs. These programs were designed on a scale, so no one fell below a certain level of income. I’m making these numbers up, but if someone had an income of $5,000, then you would use the tax code to boost them up to $7,000. It’s the negative income tax idea. We saw increased homeownership, children staying in school longer, and lower levels of poverty. And while there was some reduction in work, the impact was not huge.

Do you see UBI as a potential tool in addressing economic inequality around race and gender?

If you’re a parent who who wants to stay at home with kids, it’s quite unlikely you’ll be able to do so unless you’re in the upper income brackets. Child care is also unaffordable for many families, so one parent may work overnight or weird hours so they don’t have to get assistance.

Universal payments would provide people with more choice, make childcare more affordable or let one person stay at home—that’s one feminist argument for it.

On the racial component, in practice many anti-poverty programs end up being implemented in a way that has racist repercussions. For instance, with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) you often see more requirements and lower benefits in states with a higher share of African Americans. Programs that are more automatic like UBI, with no work requirements and that have same benefits for everyone regardless of location, could be more race neutral.

Spotlight has profiled the UBI pilot in Stockton, California and the passage of legislation exploring the idea in Hawaii. Are there other experiments that should be on our radar?

There is a lot happening in other countries. Ontario is doing a basic income pilot for 4,000 residents. It will be very interesting to see the results of that. India has a complicated set of subsidy programs and there has been suggestion of experimenting with a basic income instead.

In the US, I don’t think you should watch for UBI. I don’t think that’s within the scope of what’s politically possible. However, other intermediate policies (the elimination of work requirements, conversion of in-kind benefits to cash ones) are worth keeping an eye on in the near future.

How does this play in the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination process? Do you think there will be candidates who will support UBI or policies moving in that direction?

I think more the latter. What you might see ultimately are things that are more proximate like Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) expansion, or universal child grants, which most other OECD countries have.

Is there any interest on the Republican side?

Some pieces of it get traction. There have been some very conservative Senators getting behind child support. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) have been very supportive of child tax credits, and they’re not exactly moderates. The interest on the conservative side is not so much from base Republicans, but libertarians. The AEIs and Heritages show some interest, but I’m not sure how much political sway they’ll have.

It seems like this idea should certainly be on the radar of people who care about poverty and opportunity.

Yes. So many people are drawn to UBI because they worry about the future of work. However, we’re also seeing a lot of interest in cash assistance programs more broadly and we’re seeing that universal programs could be great for poverty alleviation. That’s where I think the soundest argument is.

Annie Lowrey is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives