Discount grocery stores are haven for easy to prepare items that are very cheap, though generally not very nutritious. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about universal basic income. Need a primer? Catch up here

Matt Zwolinski is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, and co-director of USD’s Institute for Law and Philosophy. Find him on Twitter: @Mattzwolinski.

Too often in the United States, welfare comes with strings attached. Yes, Americans are willing to help the poor; but they aren’t quite willing to trust them. After all, a lot of Americans still believe that people fall into poverty because there’s something wrong with them. Poverty is the material reflection of an internal moral failure.

And so, many of us believe that whatever aid we give to the poor should not be a “handout.” It must be conditioned on the poor correcting the personal failings that got them into poverty in the first place. We’ll help you take care of your children, but only if you get a job. We’ll help you buy food, but only with food stamps that we know you can’t spend on alcohol or tobacco.

A basic income program that replaces in-kind transfers like food stamps or Medicaid with a simple, universal cash grant would not only provide more effective aid to the poor, it would provide that aid in a manner more consistent with the values of human dignity and responsibility.

The efficiency argument on behalf of cash grants is straightforward: unlike in-kind benefits, people can use cash on whatever they need the most. If what they need is food, they can use the cash they’re given on groceries—and they’re no worse off than if they had received food stamps. But if what they need is something else—to pay their rent, or an overdue utility bill, or maybe even to save a little for the future—then cash is much better. As long as we assume that people know more (and care more) about their own needs than the government does, the case for cash over in-kind benefits is powerful. Cash is flexible. Cash is freedom.

[Another perspective: Basic income won’t fix America’s social divide]

This isn’t just theory. There is a growing body of empirical evidence showing that the poor use the freedom cash provides to make real improvements in their lives. From the Bolsa Familia program in Brazil, to cash grants in Uganda and Mexico, we’ve seen that poor people who are given cash grants typically use the money responsibly: purchasing basic necessities and trying to generate sustainable streams of revenue. Those benefits often add up to real, long-term improvements in health and educational outcomes.

Paternalism isn’t just ineffective; it’s insulting. It presumes that the poor are incapable of managing their own lives. And it requires a great deal of invasive and degrading snooping on the government’s part to ensure that the poor are living up to the demands we’ve placed on them. Cash transfers, in contrast, give recipients the resources and responsibility to take charge of their own lives.

Basic income proposals face serious theoretical and practical challenges, among the most serious of which is the prohibitively high cost of a grant sufficient to cover people’s basic needs. As a result, I’m much less confident in the idea now than I used to be. But even if a basic income per se is unattainable or undesirable, there’s a lot to be said for moving in its direction. We can do so by consolidating various welfare programs —SNAP, TANF, affordable housing and so on— and by converting as many in-kind programs as we can to simple cash grants. Doing so could give us a welfare state that’s less costly, less paternalistic, and more effective at meeting the needs of the poor than our current system. And that’s something that people from across the political spectrum ought to celebrate.

Explore these other perspectives:

Matt Bruenig: Tired of capitalism? Try basic income. 

Oren Cass: Basic income won’t fix America’s social divide

Jonathan Coppage: The terrible cost of universal basic income

Roy Bahat: To support innovation, subsidize creators.