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Would a universal basic income reduce poverty more than targeted programmes?

Would a universal basic income reduce poverty more than targeted programmes?

By Justin Sandefur

“If you provide a basic income, you send a powerful message: nobody wants to just sit there and do nothing, we trust you to find a valuable occupation. The idea of morality of work is one of the most insidious tools in the hands of power, and increases the bullshit jobs phenomenon.”
– David Graeber, Anthropologist

Commenting on the discussion of the universal basic income in India’s Economic Survey 2016-17, Justin Sandefur contends that a modest version of UBI could potentially save money and shift expenditure in a progressive, pro-poor direction.

The New York Times (NYT) Magazine recently published a feature story by Annie Lowrey looking at Give Directly´s universal basic income (UBI) experiment in Kenya. Reporting from a Kenyan village where eating in public is considered an ostentatious display of wealth, Lowrey does a good job of conveying just how radical this experiment is. While aid projects have come and gone, suddenly every man, woman, and child will start receiving a monthly transfer of about US$22 per month – roughly equivalent to the median Kenyan household’s per capita income – for the next 12 years, no strings attached.
The NYT piece has given rise to some sensible concerns (see for example, Chris Blattman´s skeptical take):
1. Can Kenya, or any poor country, really afford to provide a UBI?
2. Why not target the poor, instead of giving everyone money?
As fascinating as it is, the GiveDirectly pilot can elide some of these questions. After all, it´s a relatively small-scale, privately-funded research experiment. Silicon Valley philanthropists can throw money at a few dozen Kenyan villages that might not be sustainable at a larger level.
That´s why I think the truly exciting action on this topic is in India, where (as my colleague Todd Moss explained in an earlier post) the Ministry of Finance is seriously weighing the idea of a UBI that could transform the idea of the welfare State in a country of over 1.2 billion people, home to over a third of the global poor. So how does India’s Chief Economic Adviser, Arvind Subramanian (a CGD (Centre for Global Development) colleague, currently on leave) deal with these looming questions of affordability and targeting?

Can poor countries afford a UBI?

The short answer from Subramanian and team for India is that realistic magnitudes of cash can’t wipe out poverty, but a move to universal cash programmes might actually be cheaper – per unit of poverty reduction – than current social programmes.

It’s easy to oversell this point. As Berk Ozler notes in the World Bank´s Development Impact blog, the NYT Kenya piece cites a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation by Christine Zhang, Laurence Chandy and Lorena Noe at Brookings, who estimate that the size of the global poverty gap – that is, how much extra money poor people would need to bring them up to the World Bank´s US$1.90-per-day absolute poverty line – is about half of what rich nations spend each year on foreign aid. In other words, more or less, if you gave half of the foreign aid budget directly to poor people as cash, presto: no more poverty in the world.

Figure 1.  Annual cost of closing the poverty gap vs. official foreign aid

Note: This Figure is reproduced from Zhang, Chandy and Noe (2016). | As provided by the author


This viral Brookings graph is a fascinating framing of the cash-transfer debate, but sadly, it´s not a remotely practical policy proposal. My colleague Maya Forstater (with a helpful pointer from Chandy) calls this the wishful thinking of redistribution in the developing world. Ozler´s post explains the arithmetic of global poverty and cash transfers in detail. He notes that governments and aid donors have a very imperfect idea of who is and isn’t poor. So any attempt to end poverty through transfers would end up benefiting lots of non-poor people, driving up the costs. Furthermore, most real-world transfers in poor countries are a flat amount, as it’s impossible to know exactly how far below the poverty line a given household is.

The combined result is that eradicating poverty through cash transfers would be much, much more expensive than the Brookings calculation suggests.

In contrast, the India proposal from Arvind Subramanian is designed not only to be universal, but to be budget neutral – meaning it would only roll out as other social programmes were rolled back. The cost of universality is that the magnitude of any feasible transfer would likely be a small fraction of the US$22 per month from the Kenyan experiment. They estimate a quite small transfer of roughly US$4 per person per month would reduce poverty relative to India’s national line from about 22% down to about 7%, at a cost of just over 2% of GDP (gross domestic product) – roughly equal to the total cost of current fertiliser, fuel, and food subsidies.

Some of those gains are illusory. Poverty is typically defined as failing to meet a certain consumption level, measured in monetary value. Food subsidies allow you to eat more even if you ‘consume’ less in monetary terms, whereas cash boosts monetary consumption directly.

As Jean Dreze notes, other recent UBI proposals for India have been considerably more generous than the Ministry of Finance’s trial balloon, with Pranab Bardhan proposing a UBI that would add up to 10% of GDP, and Vijay Joshi proposing an alternative at 3.5% of GDP.

By displacing other government programmes, UBI would trigger powerful political opposition. Dreze’s piece worries about UBI being in tension with universal education or work guarantees. Those concerns are echoed (or preempted) by the report itself, which notes “while a UBI may certainly be the shortest path to eliminating poverty, it should not become the Trojan horse that usurps the fiscal space for a well-functioning state”.

Why not target the poor?

The bold claim buried within Subramanian´s proposal, is that a universal income would actually be more pro-poor than existing, targeted anti-poverty programmes. The idea is that current ‘targeted’ programmes are so leaky and mis-allocated that they’re not targeted at all, and a well-run UBI would be better than the status quo.

The solution to this apparent paradox is disinter-mediation. By leveraging India´s combination of an advanced electronic payments infrastructure and the Aadhaar bio-metric identification programme with over 1.1 billion enlistees, UBI could allow the Indian central government to tackle poverty directly, cutting out layers of bureaucracy and political intermediaries who siphon off budgets or allocate programmes to their cronies and favoured constituents.

The obstacles to accurate targeting mentioned above in the World Bank research are mostly technical issues, preventing altruistic philosopher kings from achieving perfect poverty reduction. Real governments aren´t so perfect. Misallocation doesn´t happen just by accident. Politicians steer programmes to their districts, poor or not; district officials siphon off money for pet projects or election campaigns; and local officials ask for kickbacks from beneficiaries.

The result is that targeting using politicised, inefficient, and oftentimes corrupt government systems could, in theory, be worse than not targeting at all.

Consider the actual counterfactual to UBI: the Indian government´s current massive, Public Distribution System (PDS) of subsidised food for poor households. This would be a likely target for countervailing cuts if UBI ever materialised. Subramanian and team calculate that 36% of the PDS subsidy never makes it to any household, and (coincidentally) another 36% accrues to non-poor households. What´s left is just 28% of the subsidy value for the poorest 40% of Indians. In short, the PDS which allegedly targets the poor is less well targeted than a (theoretical) universal programme.

Figure 2. Targeting of India´s Public Distribution System  

Note: This figure is reproduced from India Economic Survey, chapter 9, Figure A5. | As provided by the author

This is very similar to an argument made by Martin Ravallion in a CGD blog post  a couple years ago. Ravallion noted that his own research with World Bank colleagues in Bihar found that “once one accounts for all the costs involved in India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme [MNREGA], including the forgone earnings of participants, a [basic income guarantee] with the same budgetary cost would have greater impact on poverty than the labour earnings from the existing scheme.”

Could an electronic UBI really do better? There’s some evidence it could. In a large-scale randomised controlled trial (RCT) in Andhra Pradesh, economists Karthik Muralidharan, Paul Niehaus, and Sandip Sukhtankar show that shifting MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) implementation to bio-metrically-authenticated “smartcards”  led to a significant reduction in leakage from the programme.

Curiously, though, technology hasn´t solved the targeting problem: even with a bio-metric database of a billion people, the State still doesn´t know who´s poor. Poor people don´t have bank accounts or pay stubs. For now, targeting the poor means allowing discretion by local politicians and bureaucrats, posing a trade-off between targeting and leakage.

Redistribution without (much of) the State

UBI embodies two radical departures from most existing anti-poverty programmes. The one we usually talk about is anti-paternalism. Cash gives beneficiaries choices. Since technocrats often distrust the choices poor people make, economists have spent much of their research effort on cash transfers to showing that poor people won´t choose to drink away their money  or stop working.

But in many developing countries, the second distinguishing feature of cash transfer programmes – disintermediation – may prove more radical in the end. By relying on electronic payment mechanisms and ubiquitous mobile phones, programmes like Give Directly in Kenya can ‘zap’ money straight from offices in Nairobi or even North America, directly to beneficiaries in Busia. In theory, the Indian central government could do the same across several hundred districts.

So yes, the new UBI pilot in western Kenya may be unsustainably expensive. And the rhetoric about the ‘end of work’ and the age of robots is probably overwrought in places like India or Kenya. But as the Indian government has discovered, a modest version of UBI could potentially save money and shift expenditure in a progressive, pro-poor direction.

Justin Sandefur works at the Centre for Global Development.

This article was originally published in Ideas for India.

Featured Image Credits: Visual Hunt.

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