I live a good life and I try not to take it for granted. Because I have a certain income, I can choose what to buy and where to shop. I can generate options and choose what is best for my family and me. I am fascinated about what makes up a good life and the following passage got me thinking about the link between choice and income:
“But people are not wrong when they link wealth, or at least sufficiency of income, to good lives. This is because money buys a degree of autonomy, of independence, of self-government; and it is this that is essential to the good life. To live according to the wishes of others, to be a football in someone else’s game, cannot eventually satisfy, because the life thus lived is not one’s own choice, it is not the life built and directed by oneself. It is the fact of living in a way one has chosen for oneself that ultimately makes it good.” (A.C. Grayling, The Good Life: Its Costs and its Profit, in Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth?)
Unfortunately for many people living in poverty, options are limited. Rather than choosing items in the grocery store, they have to take what is offered at a food bank. Rather than purchasing clothes in a store, they may be forced to rely on handouts. The point is not where they get their needs met, but whether they are able to choose between options.
The current social assistance system offers skills workshops, assessments, training, work experiences and counselling. In exchange for benefits, people are expected to take advantage of these opportunities and eventually return to school or get a job. As an adult educator, I know that learning and growth hinges on an individual freely choosing to engage in a program or opportunity as opposed to fulfilling a requirement prescribed by others. What if instead, people received a basic income and then we trusted them to take advantage of the supports as they saw fit?
In Utopia for Realists, author Rutger Bregman relays a story attesting to the power of choice. As an experiment, a group of 13 chronically homeless men in London, England were given cash with no strings attached. Each man was given approximately $5,000 (Canadian) to spend on whatever they thought they needed. The results were compelling. After a year or so, more than half of the men had secured permanent housing. A couple of men addressed their addictions. Other actions taken by the men included re-uniting with family, guitar lessons and going back to school.
While this example illustrates positive outcomes, there is resistance to giving people money without conditions due to a concern that the money will not be used wisely. I believe, however that people living in poverty make foolish financial decisions in the same way that people with sufficient incomes overspend and get into debt. Rather than blame the poor for a lack of competency, how might we better understand their lived experience?
An area of research on the concept of scarcity offers a possible explanation as to why people living in poverty might make imprudent decisions. Researchers propose that worrying about money when you don’t have much of it reduces our problem solving abilities by narrowing our bandwidth.
Bandwidth is the portion of our mental capacity that we can use to make decisions. Worrying about money reduces impulse control, willpower and planning. The researchers point out that less of our capacity is available for use, not that our natural capacity is decreased.
“If you put a middle-class person into a situation of scarcity, she will behave like a poor person.” While scarcity is subjective, and we may not be able to attribute behaviour to only one factor, these research findings offer important insights.
Giving money without conditions through a basic income would go a long way to building better lives. Our communities can only be stronger and more resilient when those currently living in poverty experience greater autonomy and independence.
Like the homeless men experiment described above suggests, there is potential for remarkable outcomes when we create a system that both fosters human dignity and envisions a better future.