I don’t have the economics background to speak to the feasibility of universal basic income, so I won’t try; however, after a conversation on the topic with Shira of ShiraDest, I wanted to explore the potential benefits for people with mental illness.
What universal basic income is
While various implementations have been proposed, at its core, universal basic income (UBI) has several basic characteristics. It is:
- universally given to all
- permanent or long-term
- payments occur at regular intervals
- there are no conditions for payments (such as means testing)
- payments are distributed to individuals
UBI recently gained media attention when it was proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang during the 2020 leadership race. He promised a $1000 per month “freedom dividend” as a benefit for all.
The idea isn’t new, though, and appeared in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia in the 16th century. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that a basic income was a necessity that would help to reduce poverty, regardless of race, religion or social class. In Dr. King’s last book before his assassination, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, he said: “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” (quote taken from Wikipedia)
One concern that’s sometimes raised about UBI is that the money would go towards vices such as alcohol and tobacco. However, the World Bank reviewed a number of studies and found that this was not the case.
The mental health perspective
Support for UBI from a mental health perspective comes from multiple perspectives, ranging from the Canadian Mental Health Association, Canada’s major mental health non-profit organization, to the anti-psychiatry-leaning site Mad in America.
UBI may help to prevent mental illness to some extent by influencing the social determinants of health. The stress associated with poverty is an important risk factor for mental illness, and guaranteeing people an income to meet basic needs would allow people to shift from a focus on surviving to finding ways to meet higher level needs in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.
For people with mental illness who are able to work, having the safety net of UBI could be important if illness necessitated a period of time off since many workers don’t have much (if any) paid sick time. I used to work at a well-paying unionized job with pretty good sick-time benefits, but when I was hospitalized, I ran out of sick time and had to take unpaid leave.
UBI could also alleviate some of the worry about what might happen if the illness progresses to the point that working just isn’t possible. Applying for disability benefits can be a stressful process, particularly if an appeal is needed. I haven’t gotten a decision yet on my own application, but the stress of the application process definitely has certainly had a negative impact on my mental health.
Work on a limited basis
For some people with mental illness, regular employment might be out of reach, but working on a casual basis could allow them to remain in the workforce longer. UBI could make that feasible from a financial perspective.
Currently, people who are on disability benefits typically have limited amounts of income they can earn before they’re cut off of disability entirely. This can act as a disincentive to work for people who may be able to work some of those time, but whose illnesses aren’t stable enough to risk going off of benefits. With universal basic income, that would no longer be an issue.
Universal basic income isn’t entirely untested. As an example, for years, Canada had Family Allowance, which was a monthly payment per child, regardless of the parents’ income.
When people live in poverty or at risk of poverty, health suffers, including mental health. UBI could be a good way to alleviate suffering for many, including people with chronic mental illness. I hope that it’s something that governments have the courage to explore.
What are your thoughts on universal basic income?