It’s been said often that the pandemic has exacerbated longstanding inequities in American society, wealth inequality very much included. While many in the US are better off than they were a year ago (building up savings as they worked remotely while having fewer opportunities to spend), the economic burden—in terms both of lost employment and having to stay on the job in unsafe conditions—has fallen on lower-income households.
Among the policy responses gaining traction even before the novel coronavirus emerged was the idea of a universal basic income (UBI)—which Andrew Yang made a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, for example—and the related, but more targeted, concept of a guaranteed income. In this issue’s cover story, “Fighting Poverty with Cash,” associate editor Dave Zeitlin C’03 reports on new data showing that guaranteed income payments do make a significant, positive difference in recipients’ lives.
School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2) assistant professor Amy Castro Baker and her research partner Stacia West of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville are analyzing the impact of a program initiated in Stockton, California, to distribute $500 monthly to selected recipients for two years; results for the first (pre-pandemic) year came out in March. They found that the payments helped recipients meet expenses and improve their overall quality of life—and did not, as is often claimed by opponents, create a disincentive to work.
While apparently this is the first income experiment to be tried in decades, more pilot studies are on the way. Castro Baker and West will head a new center at Penn designed to serve as a clearinghouse for information and resources on guaranteed income programs to aid in policymaking.
Dave also spoke with Castro Baker about her own background, growing up watching her parents struggle and being the first in her family to go to college, and about the hate mail she has received in the course of her work, which she attributes to the US history of “attaching shame and blame to the safety net.” Noting that Martin Luther King Jr. was advocating for a guaranteed income more than 50 years ago, she told Dave, “This is not a new idea.” But it’s one whose time may be coming. Castro Baker has “a lot of hope.”
As detailed in “The Vaccine Trenches,” by Matthew De George, work toward the new messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines against COVID-19—now injecting hope into millions of arms daily—goes back nearly that long. While the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were approved for emergency use in record time, before that sprint the race was more like an ironman triathlon.
The article recounts how Katalin Kariko first became convinced of mRNA’s potential as a young researcher and eventually found a like-minded collaborator in Penn colleague Drew Weissman. Amid many setbacks, their work together led to the key breakthroughs that paved the way for today’s vaccines. But that achievement may have only scratched the surface. The two researchers and others in Weissman’s lab also share insights about possible further use of the technology in a broad array of infectious and other diseases.
It is noted in passing in JoAnn Greco’s article, “Webside Manner,” that an 1879 Lancet article suggested that telephone calls could replace some office visits, so the basic concept of telemedicine has been around for a while, too. Use had been growing before 2020—but when lockdowns started last spring, Penn went from 1,000 telemedicine visits per month to 7,500 per day, to cite one statistic from the piece.
JoAnn spoke with Penn Medicine physicians and researchers and with alumni involved in the field about the impact of that explosive growth, the groundwork that had been done previously, and what may lie ahead in a post-pandemic era—including issues of access and equity. If those can be resolved, the technology could improve healthcare in rural and other underserved areas and lessen time commitment and other costs of doctor visits.
Also in this issue, in “Writing Lives,” we highlight recently published memoirs by four alumni writers—all very different, and well worth seeking out. (For this, I was delighted to write about Nick Lyons W’53, whose relationship with the magazine goes back even before my time here!)
Finally, “Gazetteer” opens with details on Penn’s scheduled in-person Commencement ceremony and planned full return for faculty, students, and staff next fall, accompanied by some views—both aerial and ground-level—of the campus now.
—John Prendergast C’80