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Hi everyone.
Thank you so much for welcoming me and Joe here, today.
We're really excited to be here this afternoon to talk about Universal Basic Income, or UBI.
And, we think it's important to talk about this, because UBI is a big idea that has the
potential to transform how we, as a community of effective altruists, donors, infomentors,
and researchers think about doing good in the world.
So, I'll start us off today by introducing UBI and, sort of, the debate about its effectiveness,
and discussing how existing evidence from RCTs can help inform how we think about this
And then I'll hand it over to Joe, who will talk about some ongoing UBI research, and
wrap up with some thoughts and questions about what this means for all of us as effective
So, if you've kept up with the development economics news over the past year or so, you've
probably heard a lot of buzz about UBI.
As a reminder, UBI is a cash-transfer that is, as the name implies, universal, meaning
that all people in a given area receive it.
It is not targeted at specific populations, and there are no conditions placed on how
the money may be used.
The transfer is regularly recurring, delivered over the long term, and sufficient to meet
basic needs.
And around the world, there are studies taking place to better understand the various iterations
of UBI, and its potential impacts.
So, what explains the widespread interest in UBI today?
On the one hand, in many countries like the US, the economy is being rapidly transformed
by technology.
Automation is getting cheaper and better every day.
According to one study by economists at MIT and Boston University, the number - each robot
that came into the world between 1993 and 2007 reduced the number of available jobs
by 5.6 So, automation has already displaced, and likely will continue to displace workers,
especially in certain industries.
This makes UBI a potentially attractive policy option, for those who are concerned about
the wellbeing of workers left behind by automation and technology advances.
On the other hand, while the world has made large strides in reducing poverty, more than
700 million people still live on less than $1.90 per day.
And especially in low income countries where the extreme poor live, UBI is seen as a potential
policy option to help bring adults and children up to the poverty line, and ensure that their
basic needs are met.
In high and low countries alike, there are often concerns about the effectiveness of
existing social safety net programs.
People wonder if current programs are as effective as they could be.
They might stigmatize recipients.
They might be ineffectively delivered.
And, with the proliferation of the gig economy and alternative work arrangements, employer-based
approaches to social welfare, like many of those that we have in place today, may not
be suitable going forward.
Like any potentially disruptive new approach, of course there are supporters and detractors
of UBI.
Supporters argue that UBI might be more efficient than existing social programs, that its unconditional
nature offers recipients flexibility and autonomy, and that new technology makes it more feasible
than ever to distribute basic income transfers.
On the other hand, detractors raise concerns about UBI simply being too costly to be a
reasonable solution, and they also raise concerns about how unconditional cash may be used by
And of course, despite new technology, the infrastructure to receive payments may not
exist in all contexts, especially those where the most poor live.
So there are valid points on both sides of this debate.
How can we, as effective altruists, decide where to put our weight as a community, and
what more do we need to know?
So, let's look at some existing evidence.
First, on the concern that receiving cash with no conditions attached might lead to
a reduction in work.
On average, there is evidence that that is not the case.
What about concerns that cash given with few or no strings attached will be squandered?
In Kenya, researchers tested a program implemented by GiveDirectly, which transferred money in
a lump sum to poor households, and they found that it led to increases in both economic
and non-economic wellbeing, and did not lead to increases in spending on temptation goods
like alcohol or tobacco.
What's important to note is that these outcomes were measured less than a year after the transfer
was given, and if we're trying to understand cash transfers as a way to reduce poverty,
and if we're trying to think about them as a way to inform our opinions about UBI, we
should probably consider the longer-term effects.
So, we have some research on that as well.
Researchers in Uganda and Sri Lanka have found that unsupervised cash grants, distributed
in sort of a business setting, had positive impacts on business investment, profits, and
household income after 4 or 5 years.
But I just mentioned that those were given in a business setting.
In Uganda, the grants were given to groups of young people who had submitted business
And in Sri Lanka, grants were given to micro-enterprise owners.
And if we want to understand the relevance of cash transfers for UBI, we might want to
think about cash without this framing or context attached to it.
So to shed some light on that question, we can turn back to the study that researchers
did of GiveDirectly's program in Kenya.
The researchers, Johannes Haushofer and Jeremy Shapiro, simply released longer-term results
from that cash transfer, and you might have seen a lot of blogs on the internet, a lot
of tweets that have been talking about these results.
They've generated a lot of discussion.
And overall, the results were largely ambiguous, mostly due to some methodology challenges
of the kind that plague many research studies.
This includes differential attrition rates between the households who did receive transfers
and who didn't, and some others that I'm happy to talk about in office hours tomorrow if
you're interested.
Even though the results were pretty ambiguous, they're still an important input into the
broader evidence landscape around cash transfers and UBI.
And, luckily, GiveDirectly is doing many other RCTs and many other studies whose results
will continue to inform this discussion.
So, when GiveDirectly and the researchers started the study, they designed the evaluation
to answer some really important policy questions.
They assigned households to three different groups, and that allowed them to figure out
what happens to people who receive cash, people whose neighbors receive cash, and people whose
communities are not exposed to cash at all.
After looking at the three-year survey results, the researchers found that most of those positive
impacts that I mentioned after 9 months had disappeared.
Households who had received the cash transfers did have more assets, but the impacts on consumption,
investment, and happiness were no longer apparent.
And there's also some suggestive evidence that households whose neighbors received cash,
but who didn't receive cash themselves, experienced negative spillover effects, but again, this
evidence is subject to some methodological questions, and we'll want to have more research
on this question in the future.
And, Joe is going to tell you about some of the efforts that are currently ongoing to
get more evidence on these questions in a little bit.
But before he does, I want to return to one of the motivations behind UBI, which is reducing
We're not yet sure if basic income will lead to a sustainable income to economic or non-economic
wellbeing of the households living in extreme poverty.
But while we wait for results, there is already evidence on one approach, which is targeted
to households living on less than $1.90 a day.
That can sustainably improve livelihoods.
It's called the graduation approach, and it was initially designed and tested by BRAC,
which is an NGO in Bangaladesh.
At its heard, the graduation approach gives a transfer of a productive asset, which is
meant to be the core of a small business.
And it also includes other complementary services, including coaching and consumption support,
usually in the form of cash transfers.
This is an actively managed program, in which households receive two years of support.
JPAL-affiliated researchers have evaluated the program in Bangaladesh and in 6 other
countries around the world, and found that overall the program had positive impacts on
most measures of economic and non-economic wellbeing, both when the program ended, and
a year later, after all the program support had ended.
And in two sites, where it's been tested four years later - so, 7 years after the asset
was transferred originally - there's evidence that consumption, income, assets, and psychosocial
well-being all continued to improve.
Which suggests that the changes caused by this approach have lasting power.
Obviously, a program that involves all of these components is more expensive and more
hands-on than delivering cash alone.
So, researchers and implementers alike are really interested in figuring out whether
it can be delivered in a less intensive version, or with fewer components.
And, in Ghana, researchers tested just the asset transfer alone, and in Uganda, researchers
tested a cash transfer that was roughly equal to the cost of delivering a sort of streamlined
version of this program.
And in both cases, they found that this sort of capital-infusion alone did not have the
same positive effects on consumption, investment, or asset ownership.
So, there seems to be something about the full package of the program that impacts households
differently than capital alone can.
So what does this mean, going back to the question of basic income?
One interpretation is that households who are living in extreme poverty in lower and
middle income countries face a number of pervasive market failures, like limited access to capital,
limited information, and low trust in market institutions.
The full package of graduation seems to be able to mitigate some of these market failures,
in a way that cash alone may not be able to.
So, in these contexts, we still need more evidence on whether cash transfers that are
sufficiently large, or delivered in sufficiently long duration, can overcome some of these
barriers that existing evidence - that I just mentioned - have not been able to.
And it also raises interesting questions about cash transfers in high income countries like
the US.
Here, the market failures I just mentioned are likely to be less pervasive, and less
complex than they are in the countries where we're trying to reduce extreme poverty.
But of course, we still need more research across contexts, to understand what impact
something like a UBI will have on the household to receive it.
With that, I will hand it over to Joe, to talk about some of that work.
Joe Huston, originally from San Antonio, is the CFO at GiveDirectly, a nonprofit which
is devoted exclusively to delivering unconditional cash transfers to the extreme poor.
Prior to heading GiveDirectly's finance function, he spent three years managing their operations
in Kenya and Uganda, where he led the launch of GiveDirectly's 21,000 person experimental
evaluation of universal basic income in that country.
Previously, he worked at US asset management firm Bridgewater Associates, and earned a
BA in Economics from Dartmouth College.
Please welcome Joe Huston.
I'll start with saying that I'm really glad to be here.
I originally found GiveDirectly through the effective altruism community, and so conversations
like these are very near and dear to my heart.
I also know that there's a bunch of sort of different topics to dig into.
UBI in the developed world, the three-year results from Kenya, and so I'll try to keep
it brief so we have time for conversation, but we'll see how well I keep the promise.
And so, a kind of core piece to start out with, when we're thinking about "How would
a universal basic income be different from some of the other things we already know about
cash transfers" gets into what's unique about a universal basic income - that particular
structure of cash transfer.
Well, it's a few things.
First, it's universal.
So, whole communities are receiving the cash transfer, relative to targeting specific income
levels or specific levels of vulnerability.
What that also means is that you have a lot of variation in the types of recipient.
It's not just business owners or people in extreme poverty, but you have some variation
in terms of just, whatever the communities look like.
The second thing is that it's a particular amount: it's basic.
It's sufficient to cover basic needs, and so that also sort of differs from some of
what we already know about other sorts of cash transfer studies, which might be smaller,
or big, one-time capital grants.
It's a particular size of cash transfer.
And the third thing is that it's an income.
It should be something you can rely on for your entire life, to sort of provide a permanent
cash floor, so that you're always up to a certain standard of living, because you're
receiving a cash transfer equal to the cost of that standard of living.
And so relative to cash transfer programs, that are one-time grants, like what Haushofer
and Shapiro studied, or targeted towards a particular life stage: a pension, or support
for people who have kids in secondary school.
The idea behind a universal basic income should be something that sort of follows you for
your entire life, and provides long-term cash support.
So what do we know about that type of cash transfer?
Well, you know in general from what Sam told you, is that there's a lot of studies of cash
transfers broadly.
Literally over 100 studies on cash transfers all over the world.
There are a handful of studies that get grouped in specifically about universal basic income.
In the 60s and 70s, there was a wave of experiments in the US and Canada that tested a variant
of a universal basic income called a negative income tax.
From those - they typically weren't universal, they were targeted towards the poor.
The experiments also weren't universal because there was sort of a lottery-like system, choosing
people randomly to participate in the studies.
So you didn't sort of get the community level of facts.
They were large, and so they were basic, usually.
They provided a meaningful level of support.
But they also weren't typically long-term.
Usually sort of a few years or so.
What you saw from those studies is similar to what you see in a lot of the cash studies.
First, people got money, and so they were mechanically less poor.
And then you saw that flow through to sort of broad base improvements.
You saw educational attainment increase.
In Canada, you saw hospitalization rates fall pretty markedly.
One thing that's different from the Developed World studies that doesn't show up in the
Developing World studies, is that you did see modest reductions in work effort.
But where those showed up, they were showing up in populations where you might be more
okay with working less.
They showed up in teenagers, who worked less and went to school more, and young mothers,
just after giving birth.
And so you might sort of be okay with those populations working a little bit less.
Otherwise, there's a handful of studies in Namibia and Maja Pradesh in India, that looked
at universal - these universal cash transfers.
But, in Namibia it wasn't a randomized controlled trial, and didn't last for very long: only
a couple of years.
And in India, where they did use that experimental approach, it similarly didn't last all that
Then, recently, as you've probably seen in the news, there's been an explosion of studies,
basically all over the world.
GiveDirectly has launched one in Kenya, there's one in Finland, there's one in the Netherlands.
There's been demonstration projects like this one in Germany, called My Basic Income.
And there's one coming up in Stockton, California as well.
And there's sort of been two larger randomized controlled trials that are coming onboard.
First, in Ontario, done by the provincial government there.
And by YCombinator in California.
Because these studies are expensive, researchers have typically made cost-benefit calculations
to prioritize what they're studying.
And so, almost none of these have been universal, in the sense of looking at whole communities.
The YCombinator one isn't looking at whole communities, but they are looking at some
income variation, and so they are doing their sort of best to balance those types of things.
And then, typically, they haven't gone that far out in terms of long-term, which might
sort of give you a question about whether that matters or not in interpreting these
GiveDirectly sort of took the approach of trying to design a study that would complement
this body of research, as well as the body of research about cash transfers broadly.
And so, the study is randomized at the village level.
And so, whole communities will be treated differently, with about 44 villages receiving
12 years of monthly payments - about $23 - sized to sort of meet the poverty line in rural
That group of villages will be compared against villages receiving 2 years worth of basic
income payments, and a group of villages receiving one-time cash grants of about $500 per adult.That's
roughly equal to the sum of those 2 years worth of payments.
And then all three of those groups will be compared to a control group.
The research is being led by development economists, like Abhijit Banerjee, who founded JPAL, and
Tavneet Suri, who is also director at JPAL, as well as Alan Krueger, who is the former
chair of the Council of Economic Advisors for President Obama, to kind of bridge the
policy worlds across the developing and developed world.
And the actual research surveying itself is being done by Innovations for Poverty Action,
and we should have results out early next year, which is actually when we'll have an
explosion of results out from GiveDirectly, Canada, and Finland as well.
With this type of study, you sort of want to look at a broad set of outcome variables.
And so we're looking at both individual level outcome variables, in terms of earning or
spending or assets, occupations and time-use, gender relations and risk-taking.
Sort of at the individual level, how do those things evolve?
We're also looking at community level effects, because there's something unique about this
type of cash transfer, that everyone in society - or at least most of the people you're seeing
day-to-day, are also receiving that cash transfer.
And so we're looking at things like community level economic effects, access to health or
education or water facilities, how things like community or political engagement evolve,
as well as how crime levels change.
And then we'll look at both of those types of things based off of the differences in
the cash transfers.
How it varies between the 12 year group of villages, and the 2 year group, which should
help inform how we should think about the other studies, that are relatively shorter
term, as well as the structure of how cash grants achieve different goals or different
outcomes versus the recurring stream payments.
And then, because it's universal, we have a rich set of data of different types of people
receiving a cash transfer, and then seeing if they spend it different.
So we'll get to see how - how do different starting income groups spend cash differently?
How do different age groups, or genders, spend cash differently?
Which should help inform broader policy questions beyond just a UBI.
And so, how should the effective altruist community think about this?
And I'll apologize - the slides got merged and the formatting got a bit weird.
I think there's a few different types of questions the community should answer.
The first one is, what do we think the bet is, in terms of the direct impact of these
cash transfers.
And for this, we have a rich data of other types of cash transfers, from literally all
over the world, where, if you give cash to people who don't have it, they are immediately
a little bit less poor, because they have cash, and you start to see that flow through
into broader wellbeing things, things like increased consumption, or increased assets
and earnings.
You also see it show up in more indirect things, like stress or psychological wellbeing.
In Malawi, you saw women whose families received small, recurring payments get pregnant later,
marry later, and have lower rates of HIV, because they had a little bit more security
in society.
And so, part of the bet on effective altruism, is a bet on how it'll differ from other types
of cash transfers.
Which we can maybe dig into in the Q&A.
The second bet for the community, is about what the sort of broader policy impact of
this type of study will be.
And this applies to any of the - I think it's not 12 studies GiveDirectly is doing.
And so, to give you one example of what the policy potential of the universal basic income
study, this is taken from an estimate by the government of India, where they looked at
how - sort of modeling out how, if they replaced existing subsidy programs that they maintain
with a modest universal basic income of cash support provided, essentially universally,
what that would do to poverty in India.
And what they estimated was that it would take it from about 22% to 0.45%.
Literally bringing over 100 million people out of poverty, basically immediately.
That doesn't necessarily mean that that's what we should do: there's an opportunity
cost for that type of spending.
There might be other effects of the cash transfer that are worth studying.
But it gives you a sense of the potential scale of the policy implications of this type
of research, beyond the 21,000 people who are receiving cash from GiveDirectly.
The third, I think bet - or question - for the effective altruism community, is a more
foundational one.
And I think for that, to start with, it's useful looking at the process that I think
we mostly apply, at least for effective altruism, to help existing poor people today.
Where it looks like choosing a set of outcomes that we think are important - maybe it's earnings,
or health, or how long your life is or something like that - choosing goods and services that
we think would improve those outcomes, whether it's a graduation program or a deworming pill,
or a goat, and then choosing providers who we think can deliver those goods and services
as best they can.
And I think a lot of what the community is focused on is doing this process better than
how aid and development have traditionally done it before.
What I think is helpful about cash transfers is they pose a more foundational question
of who should make these choices, what types of outcomes are important, whether it's - how
you value earnings, or not getting rained on, or being a little bit extra healthy.
How you value improvements in the lives of your children.
The existing status quo is, donors and funders start with a pool of money, and almost by
virtue of that, they become the choosers of these next three things.
But cash transfers literally put the budget in charge of the people we're trying to help,
and lets them make those choices.
I think that switch of power is important, in part just because of practical reasons.
There's a tale of two track records where the poor have literally,over 100 studies backing
up the quality of their decision making when they control the budget.
And then, the funders, implementers, have whatever you think about the last 50 years
of development history.
I think the second one is that it's a genuinely tricky problem to figure out what types of
outcomes matter.
In part, people are very, very different.
We see GiveDirectly recipients buy an incredible, diverse array of things.
Whether it's solar panels, or livestock, or roofs.
We saw someone start a band.
There's an incredible diversity in humans.
And that's amplified by the fact that most of the decision making is done by people in
San Francisco or New York, or DC, or London.
And it's on behalf of people who are living in places like rural Western Kenya.
And I think doing that type of calculation, which we can try to do better, as effective
altruists, is inherently very, very difficult.
Which is not to say that the entire portfolio should shift towards recipient-chosen, or
recipient-decided, but existing portfolios are extremely skewed.
Basically, any way you cut it, whether you look at humanitarian aid, or institutional
aid given by governments, or US international charitable giving, basically the whole pots
of money meant to help the poor are decided by the rich.
Which is a sort of unintuitive result, given what we've talked about before.
So I think one of the most helpful things that cash transfers can do, with UBI being
an example of that, is force the effective altruism community to answer that more foundational
question of who should decide which outcomes matter, and what types of goods and services
best achieve those outcomes.
Thank you.
Great jobs guys.
Few minutes for questions, and of course, the app, the website, go ahead and submit.
Maybe just to start off with a couple of things that I could use a little help in filling
in my understanding.
Negative spillovers when some people in the village get money and others don't: what does
that look like?
I don't have an intuition for - how does somebody's life get worse in that situation?
Yeah, so, the researchers have done a little bit of work to try to understand what this
There's one paper that they've released, which finds that there might be some negative implications
on people's wellbeing.
So, people might feel more stressed or depressed, if their neighbor is receiving cash and they
In the 2018 paper, which is the 3 year results that I mentioned, the researchers posit that
households that didn't receive cash were selling off assets, and so they were - they owned
fewer assets.
And then households who did receive cash, as I mentioned, had more assets at the end.
So, feel free to add, Joe, but that's...
I think the 3 year study is one that's genuinely hard to interpret, because of the methodological
things which we can dig into.
It's a tricky study to synthesize and know what to do about, which is part of why - in
2014 we launched a study specifically geared to answering this question in a high-quality
The question of how do non-recipients of cash get impacted by being near recipients of cash.
So that we randomized the concentration of cash transfer delivered in different regions.
So that you can really highlight how people are affected.
And that'll have results out something like August or September this year.
I think the other question for the effective altruism community is how those results, in
part, inform research design, about how you should approach individually randomized studies
where people are very close.
For GiveDirectly's programming, we've moved very, very far away from choosing out individuals
from communities.
In general, we've moved much more towards enrolling almost everyone.
That's literally the case for the UBI study, but even for our day-to-day programming, we're
moving much towards saturating villages.
And so it's a little bit harder to know, without seeing the other study, which will look across
villages as well, how to draw the right conclusions from that 3 year study for what we do today.
Another just kind of clarification question.
When you mention the graduation program, the concept of asset transfer, I'm picturing a
Is that the right image for me to have in mind?
Yeah, so the graduation program is always tailored to whatever context where it's being
Usually it's livestock, but it can also be supplies to open up a small shop and sell
berets, or makeup, or cigarettes, whatever makes sense for the community.
Questions coming in.
One just about the challenges of running a study that's going to go on for 12 years.
Things are going to change in the world around you.
I mean, it's always hard to hold things constant, but, in that span of time, it gets even more
How do you think about those challenges?
Yeah, it's tricky.
You have to guess what you think your follow-up call center will cost in 2029, or whatever.
Figure out how to manage the cash between Kenyan banks and US banks, to maintain a sort
of standard payment across those 12 years.
Think about how to increase it with inflation.
It's a bunch of really hard questions, that we're trying to be pretty paranoid about,
in terms of playing out different scenarios.
If GiveDirectly got shut down in Kenya for whatever reason, could we continue payments
if we wanted to?
And things like that.
It had a bunch of specific answers to those little questions, but it required a lot of
- a decent amount of work.
The nice thing is once you get past this hurdle - we've now enrolled the 21,000 people - it's
a little bit more steady state.
The picture looks like: once a month we send on payments, and people receive text messages,
and then once every few months we have our call center call them.
And so that's a much lighter run rate engagement, that we have to keep up for the next decade
or so.
And so that piece of it is a lot easier than the initial lift to get all those people enrolled.
We're a little bit over time already, so this will have to be the last question, but, when
you think about the tradeoffs between a negative income tax and the universal basic income,
one person is asking, why give the universal basic income to everyone?
Those that don't need it, it seems wasteful.
How about the universal - not the universal - how about the non-universal negative income
tax, as an alternative?
One thing I should note is, you can achieve pretty similar distributions of incomes post-tax,
as in post-transfers, with either negative income tax or UBI.
Because with a UBI, if you give Bill Gates his $12,000 a year, you end up taxing it back.
And so you can end up with the same distributions for both settings.
I think the tradeoffs become in part political: what's more palatable?
Where in one case it's easier to say, let's give cash to the poor.
Where in another case it might be easier to get people on board with a universal support,
that's, everyone's dividend is part of being in society.
Other people also argue, which I'm looking forward to seeing, that there's something
helpful about the cash support being universal, so that it's not stigmatizing.
That it's not just the dole for the poor.
If it's less that and more a universal floor for everybody, you might think that in part
politically it's easier to maintain, but also maybe it has different effects.
That people don't view it as, because I'm poor I get this support, but because I'm part
of society I don't deserve to starve.
And that may have different sorts of effects in terms of how it's spent.
Or maybe that it's spent more communally.
And so I think those are the things we'll try to test.
Unfortunately we are out of time.
We do have a couple of announcements coming up.
But first, how about another round of applause for Sam Carter and Joe Huston?
Thank you very much, guys.


Understanding Universal Basic Income

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王惟惟 2018 年 9 月 5 日 に公開
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