An update on Stockton, California's Universal Basic Income experiment

Last year when I wrote about the pilot program for Universal Basic Income now taking place in Stockton, CA, I predicted that the outcome would be stories with headlines like “Stockton Recipients Benefit from Basic Income in a Variety of Ways.” That’s not the headline of this Associated Press update on the UBI program in Stockton, but honestly, it could be. The piece opens by highlighting one of the 125 people selected for this trial. Her name is Suzie Garza:

Garza can spend the money however she wants. She uses $150 of it to pay for her cellphone and another $100 or so to pay off her dog’s veterinarian bills. She spends the rest on her two grandsons now that she can afford to buy them birthday presents online and let them get the big bag of chips at the 7-Eleven.

“I’ve never been able to do that. I thought it was just the coolest thing,” said Garza, who is unemployed and previously was addicted to drugs, though she said she has been sober for 18 years following a stint in prison. “I like it because I feel more independent, like I’m in charge. I really have something that’s my own.”

I don’t want to be mean to Ms. Garza but honestly, having a job could give her that same feeling and no one else would be asked to pay for it.

The money has made Jovan Bravo happier. The 31-year-old Stockton native and construction worker is married and has three children, ages 13, 8 and 4. He said he didn’t see enough of his children when he worked six days a week to pay the bills.

That changed when he started getting $500 a month. Now he only works one Saturday a month. He uses the other Saturdays to take his kids to the amusement park and ride bikes with them in the park.

Good for Jovan Bravo spending more time with his kids. But is it right that taxpayers should be forced to subsidizing him $500 a month for his personal enjoyment? Granted, at the moment, all of the money for the pilot program is coming from a group called the Economic Security Project led by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. Chris Hughes has a net worth of $430 million so he can afford to give away the $1.1 million involved in this pilot and not even feel it. But that won’t be the case for taxpayers if this project were to expand to the entire country.

What infuriates me about this program and other UBI experiments is the way in which the “research” around it is designed solely to elicit positive headlines. There’s no cost-benefit analysis being done here. The entire effort consists of measuring how happy it makes people to give them free money:

A team of researchers is monitoring the participants. Their chief interest is not finances but happiness. They are using what they call a “mattering scale” to measure how much people feel like they matter to society.

“Do people notice you are there? Those things are correlated to health and well-being,” said Stacia Martin-West, a researcher at the University of Tennessee who is working on the program along with Amy Castro-Baker at the University of Pennsylvania.

As I’ve said before, can’t we just stipulate that free money makes people feel good? Do we need to hand socialist demagogues a certified talking-point about how science proves free money is awesome for personal well-being?

To make this fair, let’s assume we adopt Andrew Yang’s UBI scheme at a cost of nearly $3 trillion per year. Someone needs to run a pilot program that asks 125 people to pay significantly higher taxes (including those who currently pay very little in federal taxes) while also giving them $1000 a month as a UBI payment. Then we can ask how happy they feel about the trade-off. My guess is the reaction will be much more mixed.

The current pilot program runs through next year, but the first results will be released this fall. Expect lots more headlines marveling over the ways in which free money made people happy.