To minimize poverty, should UBI be provided for adults, children, or both?

By Nate Golden, 2020-07-07

While US GDP per capita has more than doubled in the past 50 years, many Americans still remain in poverty. According to the Census Bureau’s 2018 Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), over 40 million Americans live below their SPM poverty threshold.

Some large guaranteed-income programs have been shown to nearly eliminate poverty, but spending constraints can change how program design affects different outcomes. This paper shows the impact of new universal cash programs on poverty alleviation under varying levels of spending.

I examine the poverty rate impacts of three different basic income programs:

  • Adult UBI - provides monthly stipends only to adults.

  • Child Allowance - provides families monthly stipends based only on how many children are in their household.

  • All UBI - provides an equal monthly stipend to all Americans regardless of age (parents would receive it on behalf of their children).

Two years ago, Matt Bruenig produced a similar paper using 2017 data in which he compared the same three programs and their impact on the poverty rate up to $500 billion in new spending. Bruenig found that at all levels of spending up to $500 billion, a Child Allowance was the most effective program at reducing poverty. This paper considers new spending up to $1 trillion with updated data from 2018.


I used data from the Census Bureau’s 2019 Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), which uses data collected in 2018. The ASEC survey contains over 180,000 Americans from more than 75,000 households. Each respondent is assigned a sample weight by the Census Bureau so that models can provide consistent national-level estimates.

The Supplemental Poverty Measure classifies respondents’ poverty status by comparing their total family income (post tax and transfers) to their family poverty threshold. The Census Bureau defines poverty thresholds based on family size and costs of necessities.

In 2018, 12.7 percent of Americans were in poverty, including 13.6 percent of children and 12.5 percent of adults.


A Child Allowance reduces overall poverty more than the other two designs, for spending up to $500 billion; this aligns with Bruenig’s results. However, at levels beyond $500 billion, a UBI that includes everyone cuts overall poverty more.

Spending $100 billion on a Child Allowance would equate to monthly stipends of $114 per child and lift 4.5 million Americans (1.3 million children and 3.2 million adults) out of poverty. $500 billion on either a Child Allowance or All UBI would lift 12 million Americans out of poverty. Spending $1 trillion on an All UBI would equate to monthly checks of $258 per American and lift over 22 million people out of poverty.

The interactive graph below shows the poverty impacts of each program at different funding levels.


import pandas as pd
import numpy as np
import as px
import plotly

### LOAD DATA ###

person_raw = pd.read_csv('',
                         usecols=['MARSUPWT', 'SPM_ID', 'SPM_POVTHRESHOLD',
                                  'SPM_RESOURCES', 'A_AGE'])


person = person_raw.copy(deep=True)
person.columns = person.columns.str.lower()
person['weight'] = person.marsupwt/100
#Compute total children and adults in each resource sharing group.
person['child'] = person.a_age < 18
person['adult'] = person.a_age >= 18
spmu_ages = person.groupby('spm_id')[['child','adult']].sum()
spmu_ages.columns = ['children', 'total_adults']
person2 = person.merge(spmu_ages,left_on='spm_id', right_index=True)
total_children = (person2.child * person2.weight).sum()
total_adults = ( * person2.weight).sum()


child_allowance_overall = []
child_allowance_child = []
child_allowance_adults = []

# Determine the poverty rate impact of a Child Allownace from $0 in new spending to $1 trillion.

for spending in range(0, 1000000000001, 50000000000):
    child_allowance_per_child = spending/total_children
    total_child_allowance = person2.children * child_allowance_per_child
    new_spm_resources_ca = person2.spm_resources + total_child_allowance
    new_poor_ca = new_spm_resources_ca < person2.spm_povthreshold
    new_total_child_poor = ((person2.child * person2.weight * 
    new_child_poverty_rate = ((new_total_child_poor)/
                              (person2.child * person2.weight).sum())
    new_total_adult_poor = (( * person2.weight * 
    new_adult_poverty_rate = ((new_total_adult_poor)/
                              ( * person2.weight).sum())
    new_total_poor_ca = (new_poor_ca * person2.weight).sum()
    new_poverty_rate_ca = new_total_poor_ca/person2.weight.sum()
ubi_adults_overall = []
ubi_adults_child = []
ubi_adults_adults = []

# Determine the poverty rate impact of a Adult UBI from $0 in new spending to $1 trillion.

for spending in range(0, 1000000000001, 50000000000):
    adult_ubi = spending/total_adults
    total_adult_ubi = person2.total_adults * adult_ubi
    new_spm_resources_ubi = person2.spm_resources + total_adult_ubi
    new_poor_ubi = new_spm_resources_ubi < person2.spm_povthreshold
    new_total_child_poor = ((person2.child * person2.weight * 
    new_child_poverty_rate = ((new_total_child_poor)/
                              (person2.child * person2.weight).sum())
    new_total_adult_poor = (( * person2.weight * 
    new_adult_poverty_rate = ((new_total_adult_poor)/
                              ( * person2.weight).sum())
    new_total_poor_ubi = (new_poor_ubi * person2.weight).sum()
    new_poverty_rate_ubi = new_total_poor_ubi/person2.weight.sum()
ubi_all_overall = []
ubi_all_child = []
ubi_all_adults = []

# Determine the poverty rate impact of a All UBI from $0 in new spending to $1 trillion.

for spending in range(0, 1000000000001, 50000000000):
    all_ubi_per_person = spending/(total_adults + total_children)
    total_all_ubi = ((person2.children * all_ubi_per_person) + 
                    (person2.total_adults * all_ubi_per_person))
    new_spm_resources_all_ubi = person2.spm_resources + total_all_ubi
    new_poor_all_ubi = new_spm_resources_all_ubi < person2.spm_povthreshold
    new_total_child_poor = ((person2.child * person2.weight * 
    new_child_poverty_rate = ((new_total_child_poor)/
                              (person2.child * person2.weight).sum())
    new_total_adult_poor = (( * person2.weight * 
    new_adult_poverty_rate = ((new_total_adult_poor)/
                              ( * person2.weight).sum())
    new_total_poor_all_ubi = (new_poor_all_ubi * person2.weight).sum()
    new_poverty_rate_all_ubi = new_total_poor_all_ubi/person2.weight.sum()
spending_data = []
for spending in range(0, 1001, 50):
    spending = spending/100
### ANALYSIS ###

# Create a DataFrame grouped by each plans impact on the overall poverty rate. 
overall = {'spending_in_billions': spending_data,
                       'child_allowance': child_allowance_overall,
                       'adult_ubi': ubi_adults_overall,
                       'all_ubi': ubi_all_overall}
overall_df = pd.DataFrame(overall)
overall_df = pd.DataFrame(overall_df).round(3)

# Create a DataFrame grouped by each plans impact on the child poverty rate.
child = {'spending_in_billions': spending_data,
         'child_allowance': child_allowance_child,
         'adult_ubi': ubi_adults_child,
         'all_ubi': ubi_all_child}
child_df = pd.DataFrame(child)
child_df = pd.DataFrame(child_df).round(3)

# Create a DataFrame grouped by each plans impact on the adult poverty rate.
adult = {'spending_in_billions': spending_data,
         'child_allowance': child_allowance_adults,
         'adult_ubi': ubi_adults_adults,
         'all_ubi': ubi_all_adults}
adult_df = pd.DataFrame(adult)
adult_df = pd.DataFrame(adult_df).round(3)

# Join different programs together for plotly.
program = (pd.melt(overall_df, 'spending_in_billions', 

def melt_dict(d):
  """ produce long version of data frame represented by dictionary (d).
  d: Dictionary where each element represents a differnt UBI type and spending levels and the poverty impacts.
  DataFrame where every row is the combination of UBI type and spending level.
  df = pd.DataFrame(d).round(3) * 100
  program = pd.melt(df, 'spending_in_billions', var_name='ubi_type',value_name='poverty_rate')
  program['ubi_type'] ={'child_allowance': 'Child allowance',
                                      'adult_ubi': 'Adult UBI',
                                      'all_ubi': 'All UBI'})
  return program

program_overall = melt_dict(overall)
program_child = melt_dict(child)
program_adult = melt_dict(adult)

def line_graph(df, x, y, color, title, xaxis_title, yaxis_title):
    """Style for line graphs.
    df: DataFrame with data to be plotted.
    x: The string representing the column in df that holds the new spending in billions.
    y: The string representing the column in df that holds the poverty rate.
    color: The string representing the UBI type.
    xaxis_title: The string represnting the xaxis-title.
    yaxis_title: The string representing the yaxis-title.
    Nothing. Shows the plot.
    fig = px.line(df, x=x, y=y, color=color)

    fig.update_traces(mode='markers+lines', hovertemplate=None)

line_graph(df=program_overall, x='spending_in_billions', 
           y='poverty_rate', color='ubi_type',
           title='Overall poverty rate and spending on cash transfer programs',
           xaxis_title='Spending in billions',
           yaxis_title='SPM poverty rate')