Book Review: ‘Give People Money’ by Annie Lowrey

Book Review: ‘Give People Money’ by Annie Lowrey

‘Give People Money’ by Annie Lowrey deftly explores Universal Basic Income, one of the 21st century’s most ambitious and contentious social policy ideas.

The debate around Universal Basic Income (UBI) has intensified in recent years. Once an idea consigned to the fringes of political debate, UBI has become a far more mainstream idea in recent years. In this book, Lowrey argues that a universal basic income (UBI) will be necessary to deal with the changing economic landscape of society. The growing automation of major sectors of the workforce, for instance, will result in many jobs disappearing altogether, especially in traditional blue-collar professions. Of the jobs that will remain, these will increasing be part-time, precarious service and ‘gig economy’ jobs. A UBI, Lowrey argues, is the fairest and most efficient manner of providing a safety net to the increasing number of people who will lose out in the future economy.

‘Give People Money’ is divided into three sections. The first of these looks at issues of work and a UBI payment. Within each of the three chapters which comprise this section, Lowrey presents a case study, usually either an individual or family struggling to make ends meet, before widening her scope to society at large. The anecdotes she presents are powerful and resonate strongly with the reader. They provide an ideal hook to the chapters before going into more technical analysis of the UBI. This formatting makes the book easy to read while giving a detailed analysis of the various issues being explored.

The second portion of the book relates to the UBI and poverty. In this section, case studies are considered from across the world. Of particular note are case studies from Kenya and India. Lowrey shows the effect that a single UBI-style payment can have in cities and villages in economically dire circumstances. In these villages, most people lived in extreme poverty, earning less than $2 a day. In many cases, these people were malnourished and did not have access to even the most basic and essential of items. A direct cash payment to these villagers allowed many of these people for the first time in their lives to have enough money to feed, clothe and shelter themselves adequately. The flow-on effects of this were significant. People who had previously had to live day-to-day, meal-to-meal were able to think more long-term. They no longer had to choose between acquiring food, firewood or other essentials. For children, more focus could be placed on education and study as opposed to helping the family with work.

While the effects were widely positive, there were some issues. In the case of the Kenyan example, the UBI-style program from GiveDirectly had distribution problems. A country as poor as Kenya lacks infrastructure and the means to deliver payments, particularly electronically, to remote villages such as the one presented in the chapter ‘The Poverty Hack’. As such, payments were sometimes missed. In other cases, the money was stolen by other villagers. On the whole, however, the program was largely effective.

The third section of the book covers the UBI and social inclusion. In this section, Lowrey outlines how, in her view, a UBI-style payment would help social cohesion by making everyone included in the economy. In particular, she points out the unpaid work of carers, parents and volunteers. In the chapter ‘In It Together’, Lowrey also argues, though rather briefly, that a UBI-style payment would help with social cohesion and with mending the increased polarisation within the United States. However, she fails to elaborate on this point to any significant extent, particularly a point she makes about a UBI payment reversing the decline in social capital. In an otherwise well-researched and intelligently-argued book, this stood out as a rare lapse in Lowrey’s argumentation.

While Lowrey presents for the most part a strong case for a UBI and her thesis is well-researched, it is worth pointing out that the trials and studies conducted are for the most part dealing with small communities or single cities. Whether a universal cash payment would work at a national or whole-society level is another question altogether. This question is particularly pertinent in the case of a country like the United States. As Lowrey notes in the book, a social spending program the size of a universal basic income would be difficult to sell to much of the American electorate. There are also serious questions to consider about the practical application of a UBI payment or equivalent policy. Such a payment would be massively costly at present, unless it was made somewhat modified or conditional. What, if any, conditions or restrictions should be placed on it, is a matter of intense debate. The specifics of a UBI, as much as a payment itself, are another issue that proponents of the UBI need to work through.

‘Give People Money’ is an ideal book for a general exploration of UBI issues. Intended for the average reader, it is not an exhaustive look at UBI and is intended more as a primer than a comprehensive exploration of the minutiae of the policy. The book does not break a huge amount of new ground, as is noted by Robert Reich in his New York Times review of this book alongside Andrew Yang’s ‘The War on Normal People’, another book on the political implications of UBI. Indeed, with the pace of developments and new studies arising on UBI, it is difficult to write a book that is completely up-to-date. This book is, however, a useful starting point for those interested in the policy and wishing to learn more about it.

How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World
By Annie Lowrey
263 pp. Crown. $26.

Scott Davies is a freelance writer from Adelaide, Australia, with an interest in politics, history and culture. He holds a BA (Honours) in History and is currently studying a Master of Teaching (Secondary).

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