January 22, 2019

Basic Income on the Res, Part 2

For nearly two decades, Duke Medical School professor Jane Costello has been studying the impact of casino money on the health and wellbeing of the North Carolina Cherokee tribe. For long, balanced articles about her work, see “What Happens When the Poor Receive a Stipend?The New York Times (2014) and “Free Money: The Surprising Effects Of A Basic Income Supplied By GovernmentWired Magazine (2017).

The NY Times article lists several  encouraging results. Here are a few:

The number of Cherokee living below the poverty line had declined by half.

The frequency of behavioral problems declined by 40 percent, nearly  reaching the risk of children who had never been poor.

Crimes committed by Cherokee youth declined.

On-time high school graduation rates improved.

The earlier the supplements arrived in a child’s life, the better that child’s mental health in early adulthood.

The money seemed to improve parenting quality.

Prof. Costello also noted neurological benefits, particularly brain development in the ”hippocampus and amygdala, brain regions important for memory and emotional well-being.”

Randall Akee, an economist at UCLA and a collaborator with Prof. Costello, speculated about the impact of these findings on the cost of welfare benefits:

A cash infusion in childhood seemed to lower the risk of problems in adulthood. That suggests that poverty makes people unwell, and that meaningful intervention is relatively simple.

Bearing that in mind, [Prof. Akee] argues that the supplements actually save money in the long run. He calculates that 5 to 10 years after age 19, the savings incurred by the Cherokee income supplements surpass the initial costs — the payments to parents while the children were minors. That’s a conservative estimate, he says, based on reduced criminality, a reduced need for psychiatric care and savings gained from not repeating grades.

The Wired article tracks the experiences of “Skooter” McCoy, who left the Cherokee Reservation to play small college football the year the casino money distributions began, and of his son Spencer McCoy, who was born that same year. Skooter returned to the Reservation to coach football at the local high school and is now general manager of the Cherokee Boys Club, a nonprofit that provides day care, foster care, and other tribal services.

The casino money made it possible for him to support his young family, but the money his children will receive is potentially life-altering on a different scale.

‘If you’ve lived in a small rural community and never saw anybody leave, never saw anyone with a white-collar job or leading any organization, you always kind of keep your mindset right here,’ he says, forming a little circle with his hands in front of his face. ‘Our kids today? The kids at the high school?’ He throws his arms out wide. ‘They believe the sky’s the limit. It’s really changed the entire mindset of the community these past 20 years.’

The Cherokees’ experience began with the same provisions for a one-time distribution at age 18 of the money set aside for minors that we saw last time in the Seneca tribe’s program, but the Cherokees later amended their law to call for payments in three stages — still not ideal, but a move toward sensibility. Skooter calls the coming-of-age payments “big money,” and has seen his share of abuse, but his son Spencer appears to be taking a different path:

When Spencer first got his ‘big money,’ he says, ‘I’d get online and I was looking for trucks and stuff, but I thought at the end of the day, it wasn’t really worth it.’ Aside from a used bass boat he bought to take out fishing, Spencer has stashed most of the money away in hopes of using it to start his own business one day.

After reviewing Prof. Costello’s work, the Wired article examines the use of UBI as a response to technological unemployment, concluding as follows:

The true impact of the money on the tribe may not really be known until Spencer’s generation, the first born after the casino opened, is grown up. For the techies backing basic income as a remedy to the slow-moving national crisis that is economic inequality, that may prove a tedious wait.

Still, if anything is to be learned from the Cherokee experiment, it’s this: To imagine that a basic income, or something like it, would suddenly satisfy the disillusioned, out-of-work Rust Belt worker is as wrong-headed as imagining it would do no good at all, or drive people to stop working.

There is a third possibility: that an infusion of cash into struggling households would lift up the youth in those households in all the subtle but still meaningful ways Costello has observed over the years, until finally, when they come of age, they are better prepared for the brave new world of work, whether the robots are coming or not.

We’ll look more at “the robots are coming” and Silicon Valley’s response to technological unemployment next time. Meanwhile, for related information, see this summary re: U.S. government benefits to Indian tribes, and see this article re: another current version of UBI — the Alaska oil money trust fund.

Kevin Rhodes studies and writes about economics in an effort to understand the world his kids are growing up in, which is also the world he’s growing old in. You might enjoy his latest LinkedIn Pulse article “The Fame Monster: Rockstars And Rockstar Entrepreneurs.”

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