This UBI program works in San Francisco

We’ve known for a minute now that Universal Basic Income (UBI) works.

Nearly 10 years ago, in an essay for Bloomberg, economist Charles Kenny, a fellow at the Center for Global Development, effectively summed up the philosophy: “The big reason poor people are poor is because they don’t have enough money. It’s easier (more lazy) to pretend that all poor people are poor because they can’t take care of themselves, because they’re not smart enough, or because they’d rather spend money in alcohol and drugs.

But as numerous studies have shown, providing financial assistance to disadvantaged and homeless people produces incredible results. As noted by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman in his bestseller Utopia for realists“When the poor get money unconditionally, they actually tend to work harder…which is great with [this] money is that people can use it to buy things they need instead of things self-proclaimed experts think they need.

As Bregman explains, the UBI pilot programs have already been credited with “reductions in crime, infant mortality, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, and school absenteeism, as well as improved performance education, economic growth and gender equality”. It’s fashionable to give a cow to an African village and talk about it at your next dinner party, but whoever received that animal could have done so much more with a check.

It took a while for “free money” to take off in the United States. Too often, ignorant attitudes (i.e. people crying socialism on Twitter) get in the way. But a recent initiative by a non-profit organization called Miracle Messages could potentially help sway some uninformed minds. The San Francisco-based program gave 14 recipients $500 a month for six months. All were homeless at the start of the experiment. Nine of them have now been granted permanent accommodation.

Kevin Adler, the founder of Miracle Messages, was blown away by the results: “There’s a level of disbelief, like, how did this happen? Our homeless neighbors are often more stretched into resources, housing options, networks that might be able to open up, but just lack a bit of funds. For me, this is yet another testament to the importance of seeing agency and the inherent dignity of each of our homeless neighbors.

You will notice that he is exactly like the many progressive economists who came before him: when the poor are given a chance, they tend to take it. An extra $500 a month may not seem life changing to most of us, but it speaks to the relativity of income, circumstances and desperation. Some of the recipients of Miracle Messages have used the money to fight disease; others could only drive to work and spent their new funds on gasoline and office attire. Two of 14 service dogs adopted for chronic anxiety relief. Many choose to support family members. One of them even donated some of the money return to miracle messages. They said, “I did it for myself to feel the dignity again of being able to support the causes I believe in.”

However, as UBI programs grow in popularity and practice in the United States and Canada, there is one element of Miracle Messages’ approach that stands out. Miracle Messages also focuses on “relational poverty,” or the lack of social connections or support in the lives of those who suffer. As the name of the non-profit organization suggests, it started as a service to call, text and check in with the poor and homeless, giving them a level of attention and follow-up that many had long given up.

For those skeptical of UBI deployments, the interpersonal angle could be seen as an important failsafe. After all, the recipients of this experience spent three months receiving encouragement from their Miracle Messages counterparts. You could argue that developing these relationships put them in the right headspace to make smart, sustainable decisions once they started getting their money.

Either way, focusing on relational poverty is an often overlooked way to reduce psychological stress, build confidence, and remind poorer adults that they have not been forgotten. As economist Joseph Hanlon said, “You can’t pull yourself together if you don’t have boots. Indeed. And it’s hard to be nice to yourself when no one else is. To learn more about the incredible work that Miracle Messages does, go here.

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