Q&A with Annie Lowrey, author of GIVE PEOPLE MONEY
About Annie Lowrey
Annie Lowrey is a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A former writer for the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, and Slate, among other publications, she is a frequent guest on CNN, MSNBC, and NPR. Lowrey lives in Washington, DC.
Q. You write that when you decided to tackle the subject of universal basic income, you wanted to answer your own questions. Give People Money makes clear that one question begets another, and that the answers are often as big as the questions themselves. Was there one ur-question that first sparked your interest in UBI?
A. UBI often gets talked about as a potential policy salve after the robots come take our jobs. That’s a really interesting idea, but I’m more interested in UBI as a philosophical proposition rather than a technocratic one. What if a society decided to provide a kind of universal and complete financial backstop for its citizens—not just for an age of mass joblessness, but to support parents, boost wages, help entrepreneurs? No country has ever tried that kind of social insurance on such a grand scale.
Q. A strong work ethic is perhaps the defining aspect of American identity. You point to a cult of self-reliance underlying our veneration of figures from Benjamin Franklin and Oprah Winfrey to antiheroes like Jay Gatsby, Stringer Bell, and Tony Soprano. Even President Trump has co-opted a bootstraps narrative to bolster his appeal. In what ways could a UBI impact this unique facet of the American psyche?
A. Our culture venerates work, and our anti-poverty policies are largely designed to get people to work and to make work pay. I’m not sure that a UBI would be palatable to many Americans for that reason. We just don’t like the idea of someone getting something for nothing. The flipside is that Americans really want to work, and often construct their personal identities around their jobs. If a UBI was the policy answer for an age of mass joblessness, I’m not sure we’ve grappled with how disaffected millions of Americans still might feel. That said, there’s evidence that even a sizable UBI might reduce work effort far less than you might expect; even given money for nothing, most people would choose to keep working. When they would stop working, it would often be to search for a better job, go to school, or care for a child or parent. Those are societally beneficial things!
Q. You also write that we “judge, marginalize, and shame the poor for their poverty.” As a result, “we tolerate levels of poverty that are grotesque and entirely unique among developed nations.” Is this simply baked into the American fabric, or do you see an opportunity for a national reckoning? Could UBI—a cause that has captured interest from both sides of the aisle—offer a solution?
A. The uncomfortable answer is that we do not have a comprehensive safety net—we let millions of kids live in poverty and have a large population of families with little to no cash income—in no small part due to our society’s racism and our country’s legacy of slavery. A UBI, if designed right, would eliminate deep poverty in the United States, and would be a less paternalistic and judgmental system than we have right now. But many other deep-seated economic issues, including the racial wealth gap, would remain.
Q. There is a case to be made for UBI as a feminist policy. Can you discuss this prospect?
A. The dollars-and-cents economy relies on a vast and often unpaid, nonmonetary economy of care work: families having children, raising them, tending to the ill, keeping bellies full. Most of that care work is done by women. The idea is that a UBI would be a way of compensating them for it—drawing recognition to its social importance and giving women more freedom of choice in, say, deciding whether to stay at home with a baby or go back to work.
Q. Give People Money required extensive research, bringing you to remote villages in Kenya, a wedding in India, and even to the DMZ in Korea. The only continents not featured in the book are Antarctica and Australia. Can you describe your reporting process? What were some of the most exciting moments?
A. What’s fun is that UBI is a global conversation, and much of the best evidence for the policy comes from abroad. In reporting the book, I tried to go and see some UBI pilots firsthand, as well as talking with as many people as possible who would be directly impacted by the policy. Getting to go to that wedding was particularly wonderful—I was with a team of economic researchers in Jharkhand, a province in eastern India, and we were talking with a man about his use of a subsidized staple-food program. He insisted that we attend the wedding, which we happily did.
Q. Is there one case study for UBI that stands out as the most successful or cross-culturally resonant? Are there any cautionary failures we can apply to a potential implementation of UBI here in America?
A. There’s been a tremendous body of research done on unconditional and conditional cash-transfer programs from the Global South—in some ways, the United States is playing catch-up on that conversation, and has a lot to learn from places like Brazil and Mexico! In terms of cautionary failures, I’m not sure that any pilots have gone badly, but there are certainly questions about economic distortions a UBI might create, and whether it would be the best allocation of a country’s resources.
Q. One of the most common arguments against UBI is that people would waste the money on drugs, alcohol, or unnecessary luxuries. How realistic is this concern?
A. A number of studies have shown that cash transfers do not increase spending on vice products. More broadly, the whole idea of a UBI is that the government would give people money then butt out and let them decide what to do with it.
Q. New York-based businessman Andrew Yang is mounting a bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2020, making UBI—or as he calls it, a “Freedom Dividend”—a central issue of his campaign. How likely is it that other candidates will take up the cause as well? Will everyone be talking about UBI next election?
A. I think quite likely! A number of left-of-center politicians are pushing for universal programs, whether UBI or Medicare for All or free public college or a jobs guarantee. The idea of making sure everyone is getting the same thing is a big one animating left-of-center politics right now.
Q. To that end, is there a viable way to pay for UBI?
A. Yes. Raise taxes, trim other programs. There’s more than enough money out there—the question is whether there’s the will to do it, and whether it’s the best way to spend that money.
Q. What do you hope readers take away from Give People Money?
A. To think big when it comes to policy. What we have might not be what we need, and what we need might not be what we want. We have vastly more power and flexibility than we commonly think.
About Give People Money
A brilliantly reported, global look at universal basic income—a stipend given to every citizen—and why it might be necessary in an age of rising inequality, persistent poverty, and dazzling technology.
In this sparkling and provocative book, economics writer Annie Lowrey examines the UBI movement from many angles. She travels to Kenya to see how a UBI is lifting the poorest people on earth out of destitution, India to see how inefficient government programs are failing the poor, South Korea to interrogate UBI’s intellectual pedigree, and Silicon Valley to meet the tech titans financing UBI pilots in expectation of a world with advanced artificial intelligence and little need for human labor.
Lowrey explores the potential of such a sweeping policy and the challenges the movement faces, among them contradictory aims, uncomfortable costs, and, most powerfully, the entrenched belief that no one should get something for nothing. In the end, she shows how this arcane policy has the potential to solve some of our most intractable economic problems, while offering a new vision of citizenship and a firmer foundation for our society in this age of turbulence and marvels.