Social psychology Ph.D. student shares research on universal basic income

June 4, 2020, 11:03 p.m.

Catherine Thomas, a social psychology Ph.D. student and research fellow at the Center on Poverty and Inequality, discussed policies and opinions surrounding universal basic income (UBI) on Thursday at a virtual event hosted by the Haas Center for Public Service.

UBI would guarantee government payments to citizens regardless of their income and without a work requirement. UBI has gained national prominence in recent months thanks in part to former presidential candidate Andrew Yang. The central tenet of Yang’s campaign platform for the Democratic nomination was a “freedom dividend” by which each American adult would receive $1,000 a month. 

Thomas described changing the narrative surrounding welfare in the U.S. as a key to reducing the associated stigma. She contrasted programs such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — which provides cash assistance to families in need — with policies like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which provides a refundable tax credit for low- to moderate-income working individuals.

“Both [of these programs] have totally different value in our society,” she said. “Calling people ‘needy’ or ‘helpless’ or putting punitive and paternalistic measures on top of the policy as they do with welfare or the TANF program is very stigmatizing. But with a program like EITC, which is just based on your income, you don’t have to have any drug tests. You don’t have to be reporting to people. … That’s much less stigmatizing, though, again, it’s getting cash into the hands of low-income people.”

Thomas, whose work includes research on views about UBI policies, contrasted the welfare attitudes of conservatives and liberals.

“In America, the right likes to have punitive measures attached to these policies: time limits, drug tests, mandatory reporting, welfare to work programs,” she said. “The left really likes to have paternalistic programs, so a job guarantee, job training, financial literacy.”

UBI, on the other hand, avoids the problems associated with each of these approaches and instead allows individuals the ability to use the assistance they receive from the government in the way they deem most helpful, according to Thomas.

“The thing about UBI that is really nice,” she said, “is that it is not blaming people for their poverty, and it’s saying, ‘You are not at fault for your poverty.’ It also gives them agency. It acknowledges the structural factors that are causing poverty and also acknowledges that people have agency and they are responsible and competent and know what they need.”

Thomas’s research has found high support — around 85% — for the idea of UBI among liberals. UBI is much less popular with conservatives, even though policies such as a negative income tax, which would automatically provide money to low-income people, have been historically supported by influential conservatives like economist Milton Friedman and former President Richard Nixon. On the right currently, a primary advocate for UBI programs is the political scientist Charles Murray, who believes that the government should eliminate all other forms of welfare support and replace it with a single basic income payment. 

Conservatives would then “blame [low-income people] for the failure that will inevitably result,” Thomas argued.

The pandemic has brought the issue of guaranteed income to the forefront. Amid the economic downturn and high unemployment rate, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) with bipartisan support. The legislation provided stimulus checks of up to $1,200 to everyone with an income of less than a certain amount.

“[The stimulus checks] had Trump’s name on them, and [the program] was led by Mitch McConnell,” Thomas said. “It was led by conservatives, so we should see if this is going to change conservative support or if this is really going to be the moment where we can get a bipartisan movement on this.”

Thomas and her colleagues, however, found that receiving the stimulus check made no difference to someone’s support for UBI.  

“I think that it was just another instance of partisan polarization where conservatives saw it as a liberal policy anyway,” she said. “You saw this interesting split where the more you knew about the CARES Act stimulus payments, the more liberals liked it and the less conservatives liked it, so I think they are being exposed to different media.”

Her research did find that people who were personally financially impacted by the pandemic, such as losing a job or having their hours cut, were more likely to support UBI. 

“I think it is an empathy-building moment, and it’s a moment to change our narrative around why people experience financial need and the kind of support that’s helpful, the kind of support that they want for themselves and for other people,” she said. “I think people are seeing it in a more practical way.”

Thomas believes this change of perspective is important in increasing support for UBI policies, describing a difference between liberals and conservatives in how they view governmental assistance. Liberals, she argued, try to convince conservatives that poverty is caused by situational factors rather than individual shortcomings.

“They want them to stop thinking of individuals as being at fault and start thinking about structures at fault,” Thomas said, though she does not think that is a realistic attitude.

“What we are trying to do, instead of trying to shift them to think about structures versus individual culpability, is to change whether they see individual agency as positive or negative,” she added. 

In her experiments, when people are asked to describe the typical recipient of basic income, the top descriptor they use is “lazy.” Other common adjectives are “unmotivated,” “immoral” and “careless.”

“So we are trying to change those to positive dispositions,” Thomas said. “We have found in our prior framing studies that that is possible. You can flip them to saying they are just hardworking, they are capable, they are educated (or getting themselves educated).”

“There are ways you can still have them think about the individual but just think about them more positively,” she added.

She believes that emphasizing the government’s ability to support individual agency will lead more conservatives to support UBI programs and change their views about recipients of aid.

Thomas responded to questions about how a national UBI program would affect the economy. Some estimate that implementing the program could cost around $3 trillion.

“If you don’t account for any other benefits — the impacts it can have on other domains, such as policing, health care, education, workforce readiness — then it would cost an incredible sum,” she said. “There is no doubt that it would increase taxes. I think we should be accounting for those benefits in the ultimate cost. I think we aren’t great at that. I think that because our political cycles are so short, it really requires a long term view.”

Thomas also discussed concerns about whether employers would use UBI as an excuse to provide fewer benefits.

“I think they could use it as an excuse,” she said, adding that this problem raises questions about the role of work.

“People often retort that giving people basic income will rob people of some dignity they have through work,” she said. “But the truth is that working in the gig economy and not having benefits and not being treated respectfully by employers is not actually giving people dignity. I don’t know if we need to be fighting for companies to keep us employed in bad jobs.”

Contact Sophie Regan at sregan20 ‘at’

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