Guaranteed Basic Income: Creating A Better Tomorrow

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Lost Connections" by Johann Hari. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is guaranteed basic income? What are the objections to universal income?

Guaranteed basic income is a practice where the government pays each citizen a bare minimum wage every year. The hope is that the guaranteed income will remove the constant worry for survival that leads to depression. Critics have objected on the grounds that it will be very expensive and will make people lazy.

Read on to learn more about the advantages and criticisms of guaranteed basic income.

How Guaranteed Basic Income Helps Create a Hopeful Future

To heal depression, we can’t just deal with the past—we also have to restore hope for a meaningful future. When your personal trauma history is making you depressed, that’s an individual problem with a mostly individual solution. On the other hand, the loss of a hopeful future is a collective problem caused by systemic economic inequality, so solving it requires a structural societal overhaul. Specifically, restoring a hopeful future for everyone requires creating a social and economic safety net. That way, even if you work an unstable job without guaranteed hours, you’ll still have at least some control over your future because there’s a base level of support that you can always count on.

Universal Basic Income

In the 1970s, a small town in Canada experimented with a way to break the cycle of depression caused by financial instability and give people the breathing room to think about the future. They implemented a groundbreaking economic policy called guaranteed basic income, in which the government directly paid every citizen the bare minimum they needed to survive (in today’s money, roughly $19,000 U.S. each). The money was guaranteed, with no hoops to jump through and no strings attached. The government hoped that removing the burden of constantly worrying about having enough money to survive would translate to improved community health. 

After three years, a new conservative government took office and immediately shut down the experiment, and the results weren’t calculated for another 35 years. As it turned out, the experiment had been a huge success even in its short run. School retention and performance improved, parents took longer parental leaves to care for their newborns, and those babies had significantly healthier birth weights. 

The effects were especially powerful for women. Before universal wage, women faced enormous barriers to higher education—they were expected to be full-time family caregivers, which left little time to pursue schooling. However, with guaranteed basic income, not only could they pay tuition, but they could afford the cost of childcare for their children while they were in school. Armed with a degree, those women were then able to secure higher-paying jobs and ultimately create generational wealth for their families. 

The guaranteed basic income experiment also had a powerful impact on community mental health, including a 9% drop in hospitalizations for depression and anxiety during that time. That result makes sense given that universal basic income attacks multiple causes of depression simultaneously. When you’re not constantly worried about money, you not only regain a sense of the future—the financial security of a basic income also gives you the freedom to turn down jobs that make you miserable and seek out meaningful work. 

Other communities around the world have replicated this experiment with similar positive results. For example, a Native American tribe saw a 40% decrease in childhood behavioral and mental health problems after implementing a guaranteed basic income program because parents had more time to focus on their children. A guaranteed income removed the need to be constantly working. The results of that study are especially impressive because the universal income was only $6000 to $9000 per year—not enough to live on, but enough to take some pressure off of working families. 

These early results are promising in terms of improving public mental health. They also suggest something about the nature of mental illness: If depression and anxiety were truly biological brain disorders that strike randomly and indiscriminately, they wouldn’t be so closely correlated with poverty levels, and financial security wouldn’t do anything to alleviate them. Clearly, social and environmental factors hold a huge influence over the development of these diseases.

Objections to Universal Basic Income

Despite this promising research, many people see universal basic income as a radical, amoral, and completely unfeasible idea. Here’s how experts in the field respond to the three most common objections to universal basic income:

  1. “It will make people lazy—they’ll just watch Netflix all day.” If you ask people what they would do with a guaranteed basic income, almost everyone says they would pursue a dream, like finishing a degree or starting a business. In other words, most people have ambitions beyond Netflix. 
  2. “No one wants to scrub floors, but it has to be done. If people don’t need the money, nobody will take those types of jobs.” That’s true, but it’s a good thing. It means employers in service industries will have to provide higher pay and better benefits to attract workers—in other words, they’d have to start valuing their employees as human beings.
  3. “It’s expensive.” This is the most common criticism of universal basic income, and it’s a valid concern. However, the evidence from early studies suggests that a basic income could actually save government money in the long run. Economists and public health experts agree: Guaranteed basic income is ultimately less expensive than providing healthcare for all the physical and mental illnesses caused by constant financial stress, lack of access to resources, and poor work environments. 
Guaranteed Basic Income: Creating A Better Tomorrow

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  • The psychological and social factors that contribute to mental illness
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  • Why Amish people hardly ever get depressed

Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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