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Poverty is normally seen as a deep, complex, social problem. But to the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman it comes down to something simple: a lack of cash.
In a well-received talk at TED’s 2017 conference, Bregman argued that we can end poverty by giving people the cash they don’t earn–that is, by adopting a universal basic income. And, contrary to some basic income naysayers, he says the policy needn’t be particularly expensive.
Raising every American above the poverty line would cost about $175 billion, he says–about a third of what we spend on national defense.
Bregman, author of the book Utopia for Realists (our review here), argues that we’re too moralistic about poverty. We tend to see people’s incomes as a function of their drive and intelligence (or lack of those things).
But plenty of research shows the opposite: that people are poor, or lacking in intelligence, because of their circumstances.
That sounds like an anti-meritocratic or even anti-American thing to say. But Bregman points to studies showing that when people live in circumstances of scarcity–unable to pay bills and stressed out all the time about money–they run a cognitive “deficit” compared to richer peers. One experiment showed a decrease of 13 IQ points among participants facing severe financial difficulties. That’s the equivalent of failing to sleep at night or the mental gap between a chronic alcoholic and a moderate drinker.