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What Does the COVID-19 Pandemic Mean for Basic Income Experiments?

Apr 10 2020
Sarah Berger Gonzalez

Today, there are about a dozen basic income-related experiments taking place throughout the world, with a few more proposed to commence within the year. Basic income experiments are testing the various features of a basic income policy including the regular disbursement of unconditional cash to individuals. These experiments are important as they not only engage communities in innovative ways, but they also capture information and data on key processes, impact, and outcomes that seek to inform the development of a basic income-like policy.

Without a doubt, COVID-19 has sent unanticipated health, economic, and social shocks to communities throughout the United States and abroad. Those engaged in basic income experiments are thinking critically about how this shock is likely to change the way they engage with beneficiaries and the broader community and possibly impact current and future research.

The Stanford Basic Income Lab, an initiative of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, reached out to critical partners in the research community. Sarah Berger Gonzalez, the Lab’s program manager, asked them about current challenges they’re experiencing around basic income experiments.

How do you anticipate the COVID-19 pandemic impacting current research in basic income pilots?

“The greatest impact this is having on our research is not being able to do in-person gatherings or interviews at this time. We had anticipated having monthly gatherings where we would be able to give people information, set up bank accounts, provide access to resources, and build community and leadership skills amongst participants. We have unfortunately had to cancel those for the foreseeable future.

“We are working as a team to think through ways that we might be able to continue some of this community building online and through technology, but that is a challenge, as well, given our families’ access to technology and reliable internet is spotty. It also is unclear whether or not these efforts will really have the same effect as an in-person gathering would, particularly in building community and social support amongst the participants.”

 -Sarah Stripp, Program Manager, The Magnolia Mother’s Trust

“Our field research in Brazil ground to a halt because of the lockdown there and here. And our pilot in a large east coast city we planned for the summer is suspended indefinitely. We have shifted our work efforts in response.” 

Steve Nuñez, Lead Researcher of Guaranteed Income, Jain Family Institute

“I think it's difficult to know how current research will be impacted. For studies that are ending, researchers may struggle with leaving participants with less income during such a difficult time. For studies that have not yet started, I'm sure there is an increased eagerness to get money to recipients as more people are struggling. The ways in which COVID is harming certain communities and who is being left out of federal response may shift the target population of upcoming studies.” 

- Madeline Neighly, Director of Guaranteed Income, Economic Security Project

 

How will this crisis impact outcomes?

“We are still working with our evaluator to figure out exactly what this will mean for our outcomes and what adjustments we will need to make. While our last pilot showed that a lot of this funding went toward things like food and other basic necessities, we anticipate it will be even more so, particularly in these initial months, and we might not see the immediate pay down in debt that we saw last year either.

“It is also really essential that we ask questions right now about how something like guaranteed income can affect people in times of crisis. It was always our intent to do follow up interviews with the women who were in the initial lottery but did not receive the funds. I think it will be important comparative data to look at how having these funds during this time changed outcomes for families in terms of economic security, mental health/stress, and whole family outcomes (Were families able to handle distance learning more effectively? Were kids more prepared to matriculate to the next grade in the fall? etc.). Also, with the additional stimulus checks and conversations at a federal level around cash, we think the research we’re doing right now has an opportunity to be heard at a policy level that might not have been possible before.”

-Sarah Stripp, Program Manager, The Magnolia Mother’s Trust

“In Brazil, the city we are researching decided to launch a huge cash support package using the same disbursement mechanism they were using for the basic income. That means the net transfers increased enormously. Given the changes in context, whatever statistical analysis we do will now capture the impact of generous cash assistance during a world-historic plague and economic meltdown. In other words, we are no longer studying what we set out to study, and it may be difficult to generalize findings.”

Steve Nuñez, Lead Researcher of Guaranteed Income, Jain Family Institute

“As millions of Americans lose their jobs, those in our community who were already struggling are likely to be hardest hit. To date, the government response has been insufficient, further highlighting the need for ongoing, stable, basic income. The amounts provided by current research and pilot programs may be even more impactful in the months to come.”

- Madeline Neighly, Director of Guaranteed Income, Economic Security Project

 

Are your teams thinking about different ways to carry out research given the new social distance challenges?

“We've shifted into more advocacy/punditry in the short-run. I've been writing op-eds, providing info to legislators, and trying to get out there on social media and through other channels to educate about what research has already told us.

“Optimal cash assistance seems like a bit of a luxury right now, so we are just emphasizing the need to get money out to people as quickly as possible. The research just wasn't there yet, and we got caught without the extensive literature you'd ideally want. JFI is working with municipal governments and philanthropic organizations to try to design cash responses to the crisis. When possible, we are looking to embed research into the rollout of these programs, but these are early discussions. We also have tried to focus on parts of our research that do not require fieldwork: telephone interviews, online surveys, and virtual convenings.”

- Steve Nuñez, Lead Researcher of Guaranteed Income, Jain Family Institute

“We always anticipated at least some of their check-ins with participants to be via phone anyway, so we don’t anticipate our ability to gather data to be impeded too much. And despite the difficulties that our current situation has presented, we honestly don’t think the timing could’ve been any better. We were able to hand 80 women checks for $1,000 literally just days before things began shutting down and people began losing their jobs and hours. So, for that we are grateful.”

-Sarah Stripp, Program Manager, The Magnolia Mother’s Trust

 

Any final thoughts related to this topic?

“Unconditional cash assistance went from a fringe idea to having a central role in the discourse virtually overnight. We have never been busier. It's exciting that our work and the work of everyone in this field is suddenly being taken seriously. But of course, the economic and health effects of the current crisis are horrific, and its truly upsetting that we didn't have a resilient social safety net in place to cushion the blow.”

Steve Nuñez, Lead Researcher of Guaranteed Income, Jain Family Institute

“The pandemic may highlight the fact that philanthropy and cities, though doing incredible work on this issue, are insufficient given the scope of need. A federal basic income is the only solution.”

- Madeline Neighly, Director of Guaranteed Income, Economic Security Project

 

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Sarah Stripp is the Program Manager for Springboard To Opportunities, providing on-the-ground supportive services for families and coordinating and managing larger initiatives for the organization such as The Magnolia Mother’s Trust and the organization’s work around Children’s Savings Accounts.

Stephen Nuñez is the Lead Researcher on Guaranteed Income at the Jain Family Institute where he is carrying out research on a guaranteed income policy, testing its practical application and design by taking on empirical work that offers unique opportunities to understand how GI programs affect individuals and communities.

Madeline Neighly is the Director of Guaranteed Income at the Economic Security Project, a network to support exploration and experimentation of a guaranteed income.

"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's media portal for ethics-related news on campus and beyond. We review events and speakers, and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. A wide range of voices author the articles, including undergraduate students.