Could a small benefit really improve people's lives? I don't know ... but it worked for me.
If you were given $1,100 a month, with no strings attached, how would your life change?
Would you take more vacation days? Maybe you would stress less about your bills or expenses. Would you even go to work anymore? Would you finally start that business or write that novel?
Basically, would your life be better than it is now?
Those are the questions that German entrepreneur Michael Boymeyer wanted to answer with his new My Basic Income project.
The crowdsourced program, called Mein Grundeinkommen in German, is a bold economic experiment that aims to improve the lives of average Germans with a relatively small investment.
$1,100 (a little over 1,000 euro) per month is less than half the average German monthly wage but more than twice the welfare there, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The money for the project comes from donations made to the program, and recipients are chosen at random from a pool of applicants.
So far, 26 people (chosen from over 66,000 applicants) are receiving the monthly benefit payments. Additional recipients are chosen whenever enough money is raised to support someone for a whole year.
The money, which Mein Grundeinkommen describes as "unconditional" has been used for a wide variety of things by the chosen recipients so far.
One woman said she wanted to "spend more time with her children and do volunteer work." Another said she wanted to "develop a theatre production."
Another recipient, 9-year-old Robin, plans to use his basic income to buy more books.
However, as Michael Bohmeyer told the L.A. Times, "Not a lot changes: The students keep studying, the workers keep working and the pensioners are still pensioners. But there is a big change that takes place in their minds. People feel liberated and they feel healthier."
The idea has even gotten the attention of the German government, where leftist politicians have long supported the idea of a federalized basic income. Those who oppose it say that receiving unconditional money from the government might take away incentives to find work — an argument that sounds really familiar if you pay attention to discussions about "entitlement programs" here in the U.S.
The big question: Could receiving a small benefit really improve your life?
Frankly, it's hard to imagine a situation where it wouldn't. But I also have some personal experience with this.
Less than two months ago, I was unemployed. Like, really unemployed. The kind of unemployed where you start to wonder if maybe your career destiny is at the local deli and not, as you imagined, in the corner office of a New York City skyscraper (or whatever your thing is).
During that time, I regularly received an unemployment benefit. It wasn't much, but it was enough to pay rent and buy some inexpensive groceries. (Put that cultured butter down, Zuckerberg.)
So me and my tiny government check had some time to ask important questions: What do I want to do with my life? What am I good at? How can I eat lentils again without jamming this fork into my eye?
It was in that time that I decided, definitively, that I wanted to write professionally.
So I wrote. A lot. I got published wherever and whenever I could, and in time (SPOILERS) I got a job writing for Upworthy.
And sure, unemployment benefits aren't the same as a no-questions-asked stipend, but it taught me a lot about being helped.
Unemployment and other government programs are constantly under threat in the U.S. via the narrative that if you receive government help, you won't want to help yourself.
Receiving a benefit certainly didn't remove my incentive to work. In fact, I had never wanted a job so badly in my life.
What it did was give me the opportunity, and the time, to think about and work toward the job I really wanted. It relieved some pressure. Instead of panicking, I could focus on things getting better.
So maybe a basic income isn't such a bad idea. As Bohmeyer said, "to be able to work creatively, people need some security, they need to feel free. And they can get that with a basic income."
For some, that stipend might just be a little spending money on top of their already comfortable lives. But for others, it could be the difference between giving up and pursuing a dream. It was for me.