On Tuesday night, enthusiastic economists and passionate politicos packed the Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College as Professor Cameron Shelton and journalist Annie Lowrey took to the stage. In conversation with Professor Shelton, Lowrey, author of “Give People Money” (2018), advocated for universal basic income (UBI) as a strategy to bridge the wealth gap in America.
The discussion was co-sponsored by the Lowe Institute of Political Economy at CMC as part of its public policy speaker series. It acted as a continuation of a student debate hosted by the Athenaeum in September, which questioned whether the United States should adopt one version of the basic income proposal.
Like students at the debate, Lowrey advocated for a specific type of UBI. She believes parents with kids under 18 should receive a $1,000 monthly cash stipend.
“In the 1980s, [Brazil and Mexico] started doing something called ‘conditional cash transfers,’ mostly to moms,” Lowrey said. “They said, if you get your kid some basic inoculations and enroll them in school, you get cash, and [we] won’t tell you what to do with it. This is a really, really powerful policy intervention that gets replicated in dozens of low and middle-income countries. And you also saw an example of this in [America’s] COVID-19 response.”
A similar policy in the United States would have many beneficiaries, she said. Impoverished children would be one of the primary groups.
“Kids are quite likely to be in poverty growing up in the United States, much more likely than they are in our peer countries. This is really bad for a lot of reasons,” Lowrey said.
Lowrey referenced studies that found impoverished children are less healthy and suffer from reduced lifetime earnings. Additionally, many students living in poverty will not complete a high school or college degree. This pattern, Lowrey said, has serious repercussions, especially in a country that “is heavily racialized.”
As it stands, U.S. welfare programs are largely dictated by eligibility, which frequently changes over time. However, Lowrey’s proposed plan addressed that issue.
“The United States does have some very, very large social programs that have a great effect. But they’re kind of complicated [and] often let people fall through the cracks. The people who need the help the most, are the least capable of going and getting it,” she said. “We’re talking about everybody and we’re talking about the basics. It’s enough to help you live, but not really enough to live totally comfortably on. And, it’s unlimited in time, so we’re gonna leave this for forever.”
But forever is a long time, especially when it comes to cash. Lowrey doesn’t want to get rid of effective programs like Medicaid and replace them with UBI, although she thinks less effective initiatives, like TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), could be dismantled. Additionally, she points to taxes.
“There’s only so much money you can raise from the 1 percent because there’s just not that many of them, even if they’re making huge amounts of money,” Lowrey said. “Most of the money is being made by the 99 percent. So, the second issue is, do we not want to set an example… for politics? Do we not want to convince people in the middle class, that it would be better for them to pay a little bit of higher taxes, but have better social services? Could we show them that?”
Lowrey acknowledged this is easier said than done, saying that in order to “permit more human flourishing,” we must “get over the idea that giving people cash isn’t great.”
Her notion resonated with economics and public policy major Josie Aspromonte CM ’26.
“The conversation around UBI is not only timely but also essential for shaping our society’s future,” Aspromonte said in an email to TSL. “We must continue to engage in informed, constructive discussions on this critical issue in order to see meaningful improvements in our society and address the pressing issue of wealth inequality.”
Other attendees, like international student Filiana Kostopoulou PO ’26, didn’t leave so convinced.
“I first heard about UBI in high school and I loved it because, coming from Greece, we have all of these taxes, but we never receive any money. But after coming to college and learning more about the theory of [economics], I realized that UBI may not be very feasible,” Kostopoulou said. “I feel like it would be better and more effective to actually provide school for infants and to make college more affordable.”
To Kostopoulou, UBI won’t ubiquitously solve our nation’s problems. However, attendee Jo Keyser PO ’26 reiterated one notion that stuck out to her.
“As Lowrey so beautifully said, UBI is a tool … not an end. Creating a widespread economic floor sends a message that you’re not going to let people fall through it, and that’s powerful rhetoric we need more of in this country,” Keyser said.