• Jim Kelly

Stockton's grim UBI experiment

If you support government "safety net" programs, are you compassionate?

Stockton, California recently published a report on the first year of the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), a two-year project to give 125 below-median-income residents $500 a month and see what would happen.

You can probably predict what happened. The recipients used the extra money to make different tradeoffs in their lives, from spending habits to jobs to living situations. The social workers studying them reported some carefully worded statistics and anecdotes, and did their best to paint lives transformed by $500. The usual media eagerly puffed up the report as a huge success and the best way to end poverty.

The $500 band-aid

The report is heavy on storytelling "to disrupt deep-seated social narratives about deservedness."

They proudly tell us about Mona who was able to buy more feminine hygiene products rather than spend on her grandchildren. Or Jake, who is afflicted by a $500/month truck payment, but can now go out with his friends more. Or Pam and Jim, who have three kids but no steady income and were reaching the lifetime cap on welfare cash benefits. They were stressed and anxious, but now with $500 they don't fight as much and Pam isn't popping as many pills.

The stories all start in the middle, with someone overextended and struggling. How they got overextended, and how they can avoid overextending in the future, seem obvious and critical questions, but ones the authors carefully avoid.

Why might they do that? They explain what they're really hoping for:

We hoped to challenge the entrenched stereotypes and assumptions about the poor that paralyze our pursuit of more aggressive policy solutions.

Mona and Jake, in other words, are a means to the SEED sponsors' real goal of scaling up the program. Not necessarily by getting them out of poverty, but by changing "entrenched stereotypes" held by persons unnamed.

If you feel a responsibility to help people who are struggling, and you hope to fulfill it by delegating the job to a bureaucracy--the government, an NGO, or even some private charities--the bureaucrat's conflict of interest should alarm you. The worse the problem gets, the more budget he gets to solve it and the more his career advances. All he really has to deliver is anti-poverty theater.

Read the report. Ask yourself if anyone actually became financially stable, or if the authors are hoping you'll let them slide with platitudes like "ensuring dignity." Consider what they're saying when they laud "increased civic engagement" among participants. It sure sounds like buying votes and voters who, once dependent on UBI, have little choice but to vote for anyone promising to increase it.

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