Just give people money. With sluggish wages and household savings eroded by the pandemic, many struggling households simply need cash. Giving cash has turned out to be a powerful policy tool—its use is flexible, and households can spend it on their most pressing needs, whatever those are. But not all money is the same. The amount matters, obviously, but the timing matters too. Having the right amount of money at the right time, for example, could be the difference between maintaining housing and experiencing homelessness.
A group of mayors in the United States has launched pilot programs that provide households with regular cash transfers. Unlike universal basic income, the money is targeted only to low-income residents, delivering $500 to $1,000 per household each month. For some households, however, a steady flow of payments (perhaps $100-$250 every week) would be more helpful in keeping bills paid and food on the table. If instead the goal is to foster large investments and build assets, or protect from unpredictable or unavoidable harms, a single $5,000 check is more likely to go toward big expenses.
This talk brings together lessons from household finance and policy on cash transfers. The focus is on distinguishing between flows and lumps, and building policy around the distinct saving and liquidity challenges faced by low-income households.