Several years ago, researchers in Kenya decided to study the effects of a universal basic income (UBI) trial on people’s well-being.
Some 6,000 recipients in a 12-year trial beginning around 2017 received 75 cents a day — not much, but enough, their research found, for people to be less food-insecure and more likely to start a business. Others received payments for just two years (that ended in December 2019), and still others received a lump sum payment.
In early 2020, the coronavirus hit. In response, governments like Kenya’s imposed harsh lockdowns that sought to prevent the virus’s spread, but that also had devastating impacts on the economy.
That prompted researchers to ask: How does receiving a UBI (or having received a UBI up until recently) affect how communities are hit by a serious economic setback like this one? The researchers decided to check back in on the households in their UBI trial. This week, Nobel Prize-winning MIT economist Abhijit Banerjee, GiveDirectly’s Michael Faye, University of California San Diego’s Paul Niehaus, and MIT’s Tavneet Suri released a working paper — meaning it has not yet undergone peer review — on what they found. The late Princeton economist Alan Krueger was also a co-author.
Mostly, they found encouraging news: Even a very small UBI can really help with a deeply difficult situation. The lockdown in Kenya to reduce the spread of the coronavirus was hard on rural communities like those in the UBI study, which were already quite poor. The social safety net is limited, and people go hungry even in good times. When people earned less money, they were more likely to have to give up necessities. Food insecurity was widespread — 68 percent of households in the control group reported experiencing hunger in the last 30 days.
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