Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Give People Money by Annie Lowrey

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What would happen if a $1,000 check showed up in each and every American’s bank account each and every month for the rest of their lives?

Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work and Remake the World by Annie Lowrey is a well-researched, thoughtful, timely and deeply discouraging book.

It’s discouraging because she does such a great job showing WHY we need a universal basic income, highlighting the burning economic bridge we’re currently on — a purposefully tattered safety net, the specter of massive, crippling job displacement due to robotics and automation, and shameful, deliberate levels of wealth inequality reinforced by decades of intentionally racist economic policy.

The last part, how economic policies were designed to exclude or even constrain and punish black Americans, is hard to read.

“…the Social Security Act of 1935 excluded farm and domestic workers from coverage, with Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia arguing that to include them would ‘serve as an entering wedge for federal interference with the handling of the Negro question’ in the South. The history is complicated and contested, but the policy consequences are clear. When the act passed, it exempted two-thirds of black workers in the South from its pension and insurance programs.”

She goes on to write, “Government policy explains why black families are more likely than white families to be impoverished. It has nudged black families into stingy and judgmental welfare programs rather than generous and invisible wealth-building programs…” And, “By the mid-1980s, the median white household had a net worth of nearly $40,000, more than eleven times that of the black household. Most of this disparity stems from black families’ lack of home ownership…” Home ownership that was purposefully denied them.

As a result of these policies, “Over the past three decades, the average net worth of white families has climbed more than 80 percent, three times the rate for black families…”

This is shameful, and something we as a society must reckon with; UBI would not erase decades of discriminatory economic policies, but it would help move those victimized these policies above the poverty line. And, because the UBI goes to everyone, the benefits stretch across racial disparities and help anyone facing poverty.

She asks, “What would happen if a $1,000 check showed up in each and every American’s bank account each and every month for the rest of their lives? For the rich, not much would change. But for the poor, it would be transformative, with America’s impoverished families starting to look far more middle class. Bills would get paid, houses would get fixed up, more and better food would get eaten. Those families in deep poverty, without any cash income, would disappear.”

Of course, this immediately sets off a cacophony of alarms — especially from those who have been brainwashed into thinking “economic liberty” is more valuable than the actual well-being of all members of society — about how could we ever pay for it without inconveniencing the super wealthy. Setting aside the simple truth that our economy produces more than enough wealth to finance a functional society if the vast majority of resources weren’t going to a tiny minority of wealth holders, she argues that government intervention need not be shackled by this kind “where do we get the money” thinking.

“The Bush tax cuts were not ‘paid for.’ The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not ‘paid for.’ The United States controls its own currency, and has far more latitude in financing new programs than even most progressives would care to admit. We like to think of the government as being like a big household, earning money, budgeting it, and spending it. But sovereign nations with a printing press and an army do not work like that. The federal government spends first and raises taxes later. Save for a few whispery moments, it has not bothered to balance its budget nor has it raised enough money to cover its spending in the postwar era.”

And the benefits of a UBI extend beyond eliminating poverty and the need for safety net programs, it also helps labor reclaim lost influence and better aligns markets in favor of workers, not top line profits, acting “as a kind of twenty-first-century union, returning power to workers and radically redefining them as an investment for businesses, not just a cost to them. With a basic income, workers could refuse to take a job with low pay. With a basic income, workers could demand better benefits. With a basic income, companies would have to compete to win workers over.”

Based on her research and analysis, and common sense, UBI seems like a solution that could end decades of economic racism and the slow drift of the middle class into poverty. Because “… poverty in the United States is a choice. Stagnant middle-class incomes are a choice. Technology-fueled mass unemployment is a choice. Racism is a choice. The patriarchy is a choice. This is not to discount how deeply entrenched existing policies, interests, and tendencies are—but to recognize that while they might be entrenched, they are not immutable.”

That means, with the political will, we could choose something else, something better, because UBI “contains within it the principles of universality, unconditionality, inclusion, and simplicity, and it insists that every person is deserving of participation in the economy, freedom of choice, and a life without deprivation.”

Lowrey is a strong writer and her book offers a clear-eyed analysis of UBI, an idea whose time — it seems — has not only come, it’s quickly passing us by as the country lurches toward locking in greed, racism and failing systems until some catastrophic collapse levels us all. Read this book, then demand change.