The idea that a country should provide its citizens with an infusion of cash on a regular basis has cropped up repeatedly over the course of history, starting with Tudor England, when Sir Thomas More argued in Utopia that every person should receive a guaranteed income, and later gaining traction in the United States, in policies proposed by everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Milton Friedman.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, the idea has resurfaced, once again backed by a diverse group of figures. Part of this renewed interest stems from the economy itself: Even as jobs have rebounded from the depths of the recession, wages have remained paltry and the terms of employment are often highly precarious. Part of the interest also stems from the worries that people have about the rise of automation and artificial intelligence and their fear that things will only get worse for the American worker. But no matter what motivates this renewed interest in a guaranteed basic income, it’s a policy that’s been championed by everyone from former Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.
Stern, in his 2016 book Raising the Floor, argues that a universal basic income is the only way to ensure economic stability and a chance at the American dream. The UBI wouldn’t just cover gaps in household budgets; it would revolutionize society, responding to automation and allowing everyone to choose both how much they work and what kind of work they do, be it in a factory or in a studio, making art. For his part, Hughes shares Stern’s paranoia about the robots coming for everyone’s job; in his new book, Fair Shot, Hughes argues that regular cash payments from the government would give people security in an economy made increasingly precarious by the technology that has made him and others like him rich.
Annie Lowrey’s Give People Money presents many of the same arguments, although unlike Stern and Hughes, Lowrey is able to do so without hyperventilating about how technology is going to destroy our economy. Keeping a closer eye on the economic implications of a UBI, she also offers a better-reasoned and more engaging account of why the policy should be implemented in the United States. Still, like Stern and Hughes, she does fall into the trap of vastly overselling what a guaranteed income can accomplish. Realistically, while it may be able to address the problems of desperate poverty and a culture of overwork, it stands little chance of transforming the economy itself.
Why should we consider a universal basic income? The most straightforward answer is that it can achieve a dramatic reduction in poverty. As demonstrated in a variety of different economies, both developed and developing, a UBI provides a critical infusion of cash that allows families to assuage the ills of impoverishment.