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Rutger Bregman: Is A Universal Basic Income The Answer To Ending Poverty?

Jan 12, 2018
Originally published on January 16, 2018 8:53 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Big Five.

About Rutger Bregman's TED Talk

Historian Rutger Bregman says a lack of cash is the cause, not the symptom, of poverty. He proposes a simple but radical solution: give those in need a guaranteed basic income.

About Rutger Bregman

Rutger Bregman is an award-winning historian and author. He has published four books on history, philosophy and economics. Bregman's most recent book, Utopia for Realists, explores universal basic income and other provocative ideas.

Bregman also writes for The Correspondent and has been featured in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and on the BBC.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

OK, so we are at the last global challenge on our list of The Big Five, and that one is poverty. And while a lot of progress has been made in eradicating poverty, we are not there yet. More than 760 million people on earth still live on less than $1.90 a day. And even though there have been countless programs and interventions to end poverty, it's still one of the most deadly problems humans face.

RUTGER BREGMAN: Well, you're absolutely right, but it's also one of the biggest opportunities. I think it's low-hanging fruit basically because there are so many challenges that are - that lie ahead that have very complicated solutions. You know, if you think about climate change, for example, it's an incredibly complicated subject.

RAZ: Yeah.

BREGMAN: Now, I've come to believe that poverty is not a very difficult subject. Poverty is just a lack of cash.

RAZ: This is Rutger Bregman. He's a journalist and historian. And Rutger studies the consequences of poverty around the world.

BREGMAN: Poverty is a huge waste of human capital. If you look at something like child poverty, for example, there was - just this week, there was a new study out I read about today that shows that we miss out on a lot of innovation because, you know, a lot of kids don't get the opportunities that they deserve. So often people talk about poverty in terms of, can we afford this?

RAZ: Yeah.

BREGMAN: Well, what I think is we can't afford not to eradicate poverty. You know, what's really expensive is wasting the human talent of millions of people. That's what we can't afford.

RAZ: Rutger says one of the biggest roadblocks when it comes to fighting poverty, whether it's in the U.S. or elsewhere, is that most of us don't really understand it. Here's Rutger Bregman on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BREGMAN: It was only a few years ago that I discovered that everything I thought I knew about poverty was wrong. It all started when I accidentally stumbled upon a paper by a few American psychologists. They had traveled 8,000 miles all the way to India for a fascinating study. And it was an experiment with sugar cane farmers. You should know that these farmers collect about 60 percent of their annual income all at once, right after the harvest. And this means that they're relatively poor one part of the year and rich the other. And the researchers asked them to do an IQ test before and after the harvest.

What they subsequently discovered completely blew my mind. The farmers scored much worse on the tests before the harvest. The effects of living in poverty, it turns out, correspond to losing 14 points of IQ. It turns out that people behave differently when they perceive a thing to be scarce. And what that thing is it doesn't much matter - whether it's not enough time, money or food.

So suddenly, I understood why so many of our anti-poverty programs don't work. Investments in education, for example, are often completely ineffective. A recent analysis of 201 studies on the effectiveness of money management training came to the conclusion that it has almost no effect at all. This is not to say that the poor don't learn anything but it's not enough. It's like teaching someone to swim and then throwing them in a stormy sea.

RAZ: That - I mean, that is remarkable that people lost up to 14 points of IQ when they were living in poverty.

BREGMAN: Yeah. It's huge, isn't it?

RAZ: Yeah.

BREGMAN: And I think the implications of this are truly radical. I think the researchers themselves didn't even realize it because, you know, they've written a great book about this. They come up with such nuanced solutions, like very, very modest solutions. They say, oh, well, you can give the poor - you give them a box of medicines that lights up every now and then so people remember to take their medicines or something like that just to manage the context of poverty. But I read the book and thought, you know what? We need something way more radical - you know, not combat the symptoms but solve the problem itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BREGMAN: The big question is, of course, what can be done? I remember reading about an old plan - something that has been proposed by some of history's leading thinkers - basic income guarantee. It's a monthly grant enough to pay for your basic needs - food, shelter, education. It's completely unconditional. There's absolutely no stigma attached. So as I learned about the true nature of poverty, I couldn't stop wondering - I mean, could it really be that simple? And it didn't take long before I stumbled upon a story of a town that had done it - had actually eradicated poverty. But then nearly everyone forgot about it.

This story starts in Dauphin, Canada. In 1974, everybody in this small town was guaranteed a basic income, ensuring that no one fell below the poverty line. For four years, all well went. But then a new government was voted into power. And the new Canadian cabinet saw little point to the experiment. Twenty-five years went by. And then Evelyn Forget, a Canadian professor, found the records. Evelyn Forget discovered that the people in Dauphin had not only become richer, but also smarter and healthier. The experiment had been a resounding success. Similar results have since been found in countless other experiments around the globe from the U.S. to India.

But let's talk about the elephant in the room - how could we ever afford a basic income guarantee? It's actually a lot cheaper than you may think. What they did in Dauphin is they financed it with a negative income tax. And this means that your income is topped up as soon as you fall below the poverty line. And in that scenario, according to our economists best estimates, for a net cost of $175 billion, a quarter of U.S. military spending - 1 percent of GDP - you could lift all impoverished Americans above the poverty line. Now that should be our goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So it would be, basically, wealthier people would pay for this through their taxes, which would then be converted into just cash transfers?

BREGMAN: I'd definitely like to finance the basic income in a way that it would reduce inequality. But don't get me wrong. I believe that even the rich will benefit because we know from a lot of studies, that the costs of poverty are huge - you know, in terms of higher health care spending, higher crime rates, kids doing less well in school - and everyone is paying for that. So I believe that even the rich will benefit in the long run from living in a more prosperous society.

This is really, probably, the most important thing that I should emphasize in our conversation because we've entered a zero-sum world, right? If you win, I lose. If I win, you lose. Well, the great thing is that we can win together. You know, there's so many examples of that. And eradicating poverty is the best example. We all benefit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BREGMAN: George Orwell, one of the greatest writers who ever lived, experienced poverty firsthand in the 1920s. The essence of poverty, he wrote back then, is that it annihilates the future. Just imagine how many brilliant scientists and entrepreneurs and writers, like George Orwell, are now withering away in scarcity. Imagine how much energy and talent we would unleash if we get rid of poverty once and for all.

I believe that a basic income would work like venture capital for the people. I believe in a future wherein existence without poverty is not a privilege, but a right we all deserve. So here we are. Here we are. We've got the research. We've got the evidence, and we've got the means. We all need to change our worldview because poverty is not a lack of character; poverty is a lack of cash. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. You can find his full talk at TED.com

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T WANT TO SET THE WORLD ON FIRE")

THE INK SPOTS: (Singing) I don't want to set the world on fire.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show, The Big Five, this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Rund Abdelfatah, Casey Herman and Rachel Faulkner with help from Daniel Shukin and Benjamin Klempay. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz. And you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.