Getting a tire replaced seems easy to me; I’d just go to the nearest car shop and get it fixed. For Jayleene, however, she was living from paycheck to paycheck, and didn’t have the $110 to spare. She had no way to get to work, and her boss fired her. She couldn’t make her rent, and was soon out on the street. All of this was because she needed $110 at the right time.
Jayleene told me her story during my shift volunteering at a soup kitchen. Her experience was the final straw that convinced me to support basic income, the notion of giving people an unconditional living wage, supported by conservatives and liberals alike. Basic income is becoming increasingly popular around the world, with Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Canada experimenting with it.
So is the United States. In fact, there is a planned study in California funded by Y Combinator. The President of Y Combinator, Sam Altman, described the study: “In our pilot, the income will be unconditional; we’re going to give it to participants for the duration of the study, no matter what. People will be able to volunteer, work, not work, move to another country—anything. We hope basic income promotes freedom, and we want to see how people experience that freedom.”
Does basic income make you skeptical? I know I was pretty skeptical when I first heard about it. Sure, I care about people and don’t want anyone to starve, be homeless, or lack medical care. But there are nonprofits and government programs that are specifically created to take care of these needs. In fact, I myself volunteer at the soup kitchen and run fundraisers for food banks. So why give people money to do whatever they want to do with it?
I had two big concerns. One was that I simply didn’t trust poor people to manage their money well, and thought they would spend it on things like alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Another concern was that people would stop working, and just do whatever they wished to do, as opposed to being productive members of society.
However, more and more evidence has appeared that contradicts my beliefs. A number of studies show that people given cash don’t spend it on tobacco, alcohol, or similar “vice” products. Other studies demonstrate that those given a cash transfer don’t do less work. Instead, the evidence indicates that people who received cash transfers improve both their income and assets, and have higher psychological and physical well-being.
GiveDirectly, one of The Life You Can Save's recommended charities, focuses on cash transfers to poor households in East Africa. They decided to run the largest study of basic income to date, using $30M to cover basic living costs of poor East Africans for a decade to settle questions about basic income’s long-term impact. However, I can reasonably predict the future, and have concluded these new experiments will show similar results.
Hearing Jayleene’s story proved the clincher. I decided to bite the bullet, confess that my perspective was wrong, and update my beliefs based on evidence.
Freed of these limiting beliefs, I realize basic income has other benefits. First, it’s simpler to provide basic income than to fund many overlapping welfare agencies, and we can save many billions of dollars by simply giving money to the poor. Second, basic income gives people more dignity and creates less hassle for them than our current ad-hoc system. Thirdly, poor people like Jayleene are more aware than the government in regards to what they actually need.
For all of these reasons, I am renouncing my skepticism and sharing how the evidence convinced me to change my mind. Still, there are plenty of unresolved questions about basic income, such as how to fund a transition to it and away from using a massive system of inefficient programs. Yet that is a question of “how,” not “if.” I hope that sharing my story as a former skeptic of basic income will encourage a conversation about the next steps on this question of “how.”
This piece was first published in Psychology Today.