There are two issues:

  1. How much we redistribute, i.e. how much goods and services the government offers to people without market income
  2. How we distribute, i.e. cash vs. in-kind benefits

Your last paragraph addresses (1), and here I agree that if we’re looking to maximize welfare per dollar, we should look to the poor in developing economies rather than the US, given they’re so much poorer. It’s why I give pretty much exclusively to GiveDirectly and Against Malaria Foundation, both of which focus on the extreme poor in Sub-Saharan Africa.

But concerns around how people will use cash, e.g. substance abuse, address (2). Here there’s no evidence that people use cash less responsibly than in-kind benefits, while there’s a mountain of evidence that in-kind benefits cost much more to administer, and in many cases people make better choices with cash than in-kind benefits.

The basic income debate often gets into the realm of (1), but that’s a distraction. UBI doesn’t have to change the amount of redistribution; it does have to change the form. Many UBI advocates (including myself) would like to see more redistribution, but that’s a separate issue that can also be addressed by increasing budgets for programs like food stamps and Medicaid.

Written by

Economist. Founder and president of the UBI Center. Studied at MIT and UC Berkeley. YIMBY. Former Google data scientist.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store