Is Basic Income Good for Mental Health?

Basic income is a potential solution to the mental health crisis. There is limited scientific research that indicates financial security can improve mental health.

Back in the 1970s the Canadian government provided a basic income of $16,000 CAD [$12,424 USD today] to the residents of Dauphin, Manitoba. The rate of hospitalizations for mental illness for mental illness in Dauphin fell by 8.5% during the basic income experiment, Dr. Evelyn Forget of the University of Manitoba’s medical school calculated.

Forget’s analysis indicates that basic income is good for mental health, author Johann Hari claimed in a Vice Canada article, and a book called Lost Connections.[1] Hari’s claims are far from convincing but they are well worth considering.

What is the Connection between Income and Mental Illness?

Anybody who has ever been short of money knows that financial problems can lead to anxiety and other mental troubles. There are also studies that show the poor are more likely to suffer from mental problems and substance abuse.

There are extenuating factors to consider here, the more affluent often have the means to cover up their mental illness and similar problems. A wealthy executive, a tenured college professor, or a movie star can quietly can take time off from work; and go on “vacation,” if he or she feels a breakdown coming on. A single mother that works at McDonald’s has no such luxury.

Some of the “mental-illness hospitalizations” eliminated by the Dauphin basic income were undoubtedly poor people seeking a free or low-cost heated room for the winter. Dauphin is in north central Manitoba where the winters can be very unpleasant.

Likewise there is often more stigma associated with mental illness among the working class than the rich. A crazy rich man is simply eccentric, a weird working-class guy is a “dangerous nut” even if both are legally sane.

Affluent people; and those with health insurance, are often in a position to pay for mental health treatment or drug rehab. The factory worker or the cab driver cannot.

Other causes of mental problems and depression among the less affluent include being forced to work at a boring or unpleasant or stressful job because of limited finances. A related problem is that the working poor cannot afford to take time off from a shitty job, or tell an abusive or stupid boss to go to hell.

Are Social Services Bureaucrats causing Mental Illness?

A final cause of stress and anxiety to the poor is our social services bureaucracy. Many poor people are at the mercy of bureaucrats or computer systems that can decide to cut off vital benefits like health insurance at any time.

If benefits get cut off it can mean death or disaster for many poor families. A benefit cutoff will increase stress because it often takes days or weeks of dealing with bureaucrats and paperwork to get benefits restarted. Poor people cannot call their lawyer or pigeonhole their state legislator at the country club for help the way the affluent can.

To make matters worse much of the benefit delivery technology is obsolete and often breaks down, meaning that people cannot receive benefits they are entitled to.[2] Many of the people at food banks and other charities are legally entitled to benefits but cannot access them because of the flawed delivery system.

Can Basic Income Fix Mental Illness

The biggest problem is that there is little or no research or data about basic income’s relationship to mental health. Such data is limited because social scientists are afraid to offend their benefactors in the social-services bureaucracies.

Something to remember is that most social scientists make their living teaching college courses to people studying to be social services bureaucrats. Research that shows simply dispensing money to the poor is the most effective solution to social problems threatens social-services bureaucrats’ jobs. It also calls all the tax money invested in the social services bureaucracy into question.

Disturbingly, Hari reported that the Canadian social-sciences establishment had the data about the Dauphin experiment for 40 years and simply ignored it. The data was about to be thrown away when Forget found and analyzed it. The Dauphin experiment was abruptly shut down in the 1970s and the results of it never properly analyzed.

Cynics will say that social services bureaucrats want high rates of problems like substance abuse and mental illness among the poor because it provides more work and money for them. Liberal and leftist politicians and journalists that want to help the poor need to rethink their relationship with the social service services bureaucracy and its enablers in academia.

Can Basic Income Lead to Better Mental Health?

Basic income would not cure all mental health problems, but it can alleviate or prevent some of them.

One benefit of basic income is that it might enable more people to seek treatment for mental health problems. Others would be able to take time off from work or school to seek treatment or simply get a rest.

Basic income would enable some people to remove themselves from situations that are bad for mental health. A person might be able to quit a lousy job, leave an abusive marriage or relationship, or move away from an obnoxious roommate if basic income was available.

There are no simple solutions for mental illness but basic income would certainly eliminate some of its causes. It would certainly be a cheaper, more efficient, and more humane way of dealing with the problem than drugging people, “psychotherapy,” or forced hospitalizations.

We must recognize that our economy creates high levels of stress, anxiety, and insecurity that can contribute to mental illness. Understanding that fact can help us deal with the economic causes of mental illness. No, basic income would not cure all mental illness but it would certainly eliminate some of it.

Conservatives should take a close look at Johann Hari’s arguments. They might be of use to many on the right including libertarians that oppose bureaucratic expansion and Second-Amendment activists trying to understand the cause of mass shootings. The mental illness caused by income inequality is breeding violence and undermining families and traditional society. It is time we realized that our economy is breeding mental illness and did something about it.

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[1] See Chapter 22 of Lost Connections for a detailed version of Hari’s argument.

[2] For a good overview of the nightmare modern social services often is see Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor by Virginia Eubanks available from Amazon.

Daniel G. Jennings is a writer who lives and works in Colorado. He is a lifelong history buff who is fascinated by stocks, politics, and cryptocurrency.