Blog post

Member Profile: Catherine Thomas

9 min read
20 Oct 2020

This profile is part of the "People of Giving What We Can" series.


What keeps you busy? What makes you tick?

I'm a PhD student in social and cultural psychology. I have been working in global health and international development for 11 years now. I started this work in poverty and inequality because in Mississippi, where I'm from, inequalities are extreme. As I did work in the nonprofit space, I realized that I wanted to make sure any work I did would actually be impactful and that it wouldn’t be doing harm. It’s important to ensure you aren’t wasting money, especially when you're working with people in precarious positions who need effective support in meeting basic needs.

I started working with development economists. I worked on the long-term follow-up for a GiveDirectly randomized controlled trial (RCT) in Kenya for a few years. But I realized I had a few ethical concerns in addition to those about effectiveness. I questioned Westerners coming in and guiding development. That is partly why I decided to pursue a PhD in cultural psychology in particular. It lets me look at the values that are being imported by development programs. I wanted to ask, how can we make development programs more responsive to the realities of recipients? More responsive to their preferences? That's what I do now. I work broadly in the cash space, including universal basic income in the US, as well as unconditional cash transfers and other anti-poverty programs with the World Bank and in East and West Africa.

What motivates you to give?

I just think that I, as a middle-class white person in the US, have been given more advantages than 99% of the world. A lot of those advantages have been economic. I should be redistributing more of my wealth, which was not necessarily earned.

Also, we used to have institutions for redistribution (like tithing or Zakat, which some groups still have) and there’s historical precedent for that being 10% of your income. I think we need some kind of social or cultural norms to reinstate that tradition among a more secular generation. I support taxes as a means to redistribute wealth, but since our safety net, at least in the US, is still insufficient I want to give directly to basic needs.

Why did you take The Pledge?

I like the idea that people will give together. I hope the pledge will start to build that social norm toward redistribution, specifically for basic needs and effective charities. I came to Giving What We Can through the Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), GiveWell – that whole line of reasoning.

Logistically, I also like Giving What We Can because it helps me track my giving. I just add my donations there, so when the time comes for my taxes, I can see what I gave.

Giving What We Can is public and accountable, and I feel like I'm a small part of what is hopefully a growing movement. I especially hope it will grow among middle-class white people in the US to counter income inequality.

I appreciate that there's this mechanism that facilitates the giving process really easily. It makes me feel more whole — less divided — as an individual because it aligns my values with my actions.

What are the issues in the world that you care most deeply about?

I care about inclusion — about deep poverty and inclusion. I work on universal basic income (UBI) because it can provide a cash-based safety net. And I also work on universal basic income because it has the potential to create more inclusive narratives about people who live in poverty. Here in the US, we have very individualizing, victim-blaming narratives about people who receive aid. I think that in part undergirds our dwindling support for redistribution. So I care about changing these narratives from a moral perspective. And then I also care about it from a practical perspective, because our current narrative is a barrier to societal safety nets.

What organizations do you give to?

I give to GiveDirectly – that's kind of my base given the strength of evidence supporting it. This election season, this year, I've also given to a lot of other things, including local racial justice organizations. One thing that I think is a nice alignment of these two giving areas is Magnolia Mother’s Trust (MMT). It’s an organization in Jackson, Mississippi, where I'm from, that gives universal basic income to low-income black mothers. It's kind of seen as a modern-day manifestation of Dr. Martin Luther King's guaranteed income proposal. It's local, it deals with racial justice as well as economic justice. It's place-based plus evidence-based, which I think is kind of increasingly a sweet spot in terms of giving for me.

In terms of giving, I’ve recently been thinking a lot more about accountability, especially after reading Giridharadas’ book Winners Take All. One reason I’m moving more towards place-based giving is because I suspect it can, in some cases, allow for greater accountability and more democratic processes. When you're with a community that you can be accountable to, maybe the community you're from, then I think you could actually better understand the impacts of your donations, whether they're good or bad, wanted or unwanted. Winners Take All discusses the problematic trend of the global elite deciding unilaterally what is important to prioritize in the world through their private foundations and donations. Giridharadas argues that this is an anti-democratic trend. I’m thinking that place-based giving might have more democratic potential and less of a problematic power dynamic. Relatedly, you could get closer to a justice framework rather than a charity framework, which I think is a critical transition the philanthropic community needs to make.

I'm not sure that's all true or likely, but that's what I’ve been pondering over these past few months.

Do you ever find it difficult to give?

I do. It was especially hard in the first years living in the Bay Area and having a grad student salary. But that's why I liked the 1% commitment for students, which was very achievable. It’s getting easier now, but it was challenging in the beginning for that reason. I'm sure it will be harder again once I have children and such, but right now, it’s doable.

Do you have any effective giving tips you would like to share, or any suggestions for other people considering taking the Pledge?

I’ve found it helpful to use it as an accounting device.

I think about Julia Wise a lot. I read this article many years ago about her living with her parents and thinking about whether she wanted to have kids and all the trade-offs that she makes in her life. And that made me reflect about my rent costs in particular. The reason I try to live in the least expensive housing I can find is because I want to be able to meet that Pledge. So, I think about rent a lot and oftentimes I think about small expenses, like whether to get a cappuccino versus drip coffee, too, but that's probably a marginal saving.

What are your visions for the future?

For society, I really hope that we'll have a minimum income floor and that we can just do away with deep poverty. There's no reason that deep poverty should be increasing in the US, as it has been since the 90s. I would hope that we're able to eliminate housing and food insecurity, and lower health care costs. I also hope that greed and hoarding become immoral again. Greed and hoarding have lost their moral sanctioning and I hope that we can recover that. Then, I hope that there will be more parity between high- and low-income countries.

I want reparations to happen, both within countries and between countries. It's obviously a very hard policy to implement. Who gets reparations? How much? Over what time period? One reason I like universal basic income is because it could achieve some of the goals of reparations, though not all by any means, in a straightforward way. It would disproportionately benefit black and brown communities, and I think that’s a start.

Are there any books, movies, or papers that significantly changed the way you see giving, and that you want to share with others?

I can think of a few [books]: More Than Good Intentions by Dean Karlan, Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo – those have definitely been very influential to me. The thing that changed my life, or how I got to giving and to my research trajectory, was Esther Duflo’s Tanner Lecture at Harvard in 2012. All of Esther Duflo’s work has hugely influenced me.

Then, there’s this documentary that I’d want to share with others called Inherent Good which just came out. It’s about universal basic income in the South, and the Magnolia Mother’s Trust organization that I donate to.

Have you found anything to be helpful when talking to other people about effective giving, or giving in general?

Well, I do study how to reduce partisanship in views of UBI. I find that framing giving in terms of financial freedom, basically the way that Milton Friedman did, is surprisingly effective at increasing conservative support for universal basic income. That framing also reduces stigmatizing narratives. You would think that maybe it would increase stigmatizing narratives because it is all about this neoliberal, individualistic approach, but it actually makes conservatives see recipients of UBI as more hardworking, more competent, more moral -- all these good, humanizing things. I think that when you can bring people’s overarching ideas and values into the act of giving and situate giving as a means to realize their values, that can be an effective way to engage them. We need to recognize that different cultures, different groups have different values.

What else are you passionate about? What do you do for fun in life?

I read articles about income inequality [laughs]. What am I passionate about? Over the last 8 years, I've gotten more politically engaged. I've been doing canvassing and organizing work with friends. Other than that, I would say it's traveling. I move around a lot and I like adventures and hiking and trying new things. Recently, I've been hiking in the Tetons and in the Wind River Range. And right after that I got married on a fourteener [mountain above 14,000 ft] in Colorado in Leadville. We thought -- if our wedding was going to be canceled because of COVID, we might as well go get married in the mountains.

This interview is part of the “People of Giving What We Can" series which profiles a selection of the Giving What We Can community. The Giving What We Can is a community of people from all walks of life, with different perspectives and motivations for giving – all united by their desire to make a significant commitment to use their income to effectively helping others. Read more member stories. Share your effective giving story to help inspire others to give more, and more effectively.

For more information about Giving What We Can we recommend you check out our frequently asked questions, our effective giving recommendations, our giving pledges, and our homepage.