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Notes on 'It's Basic': A documentary exploring the promise of unconditional cash transfers (UCTs) to help alleviate poverty

Quinn McHugh
Quinn McHugh

Tonight, I thoroughly enjoyed a live screening of "It's Basic", a documentary exploring the promise of unconditional cash transfers (UCTs) to help alleviate poverty, hosted by the Center for Guaranteed Income Research (CGIR) at the Penn School of Social Policy & Practice, followed by an expert panel.

Some key nuggest of insight:

  • There are two primary aspects of a successful 'pilot to policy' transition: (1) consensus on the evidence ("is this intervention effective?") and (2) consensus in society ("does this intervention have public support?")
  • UCTs are not a new idea - in 1967, Martin Luther King Jr advocated for guaranteed income for all Americans, declaring "the dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands.”
  • Americans are often resistant to the concept of UCTs, as it challenges the deep-rooted foundation of the 'American Dream' - the belief that relative success is attainable through hard work alone. Giving people cash without conditions implicitly acknowledges that poverty often cannot be escaped without external assistance.
  • Existing social programs in the US can be extremely demoralizing to take advantage of - as one UCT recipient described it, these programs continually require recipients to prove they are "worthy of breadcrumbs."
  • Formerly incarcerated individuals are perhaps the most deserving of UCTs due to their high risk of facing homelessness. Yet, these programs receive the greatest skepticism from policymakers and the public.

Afterward, I spoke with one of the lead researchers at the CGIR about what aspects of poverty UCTs are ill-suited to address. Paraphrasing, they made clear that UCTs are not a panacea. They view UCTs as a complement to existing social programs.

Building on this perspective, I think taking a complex systems view of poverty is useful for understanding the role of UCTs. There is a seemingly infinite combination of challenges that individuals facing poverty contend with. Although social programs and policies can address some of these challenges, these relatively rigid approaches are unable to address many of the nuanced and multifaceted elements of poverty. Thus, UCTs offer a flexible solution, enabling recipients to address poverty in a way that is tailored to their unique needs and circumstances. This approach aligns closely with the core principles of human-centered design - emphasizing empathy, respecting user autonomy, and involving individuals directly in crafting solutions to their problems.

Check out the documentary here