Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

More money, more problems

Poverty | The costs of universal basic income aren’t just financial
by Rob Holmes
Posted 12/06/17, 05:15 pm

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the fifth richest person in the world, has called for a universal basic income (UBI), even for people who don’t work. He and other billionaires such as Elon Musk say paying a guaranteed minimum “wage” would provide a cushion to help people try new ideas outside the 9-to-5 grind.

Despite many leaders’ dismissal of the concept as Marxist, several industrialized nations have moved beyond the debate stage. In 2015, Finland’s millionaire Prime Minister Juha Sipila said providing basic income to people would make the social security system less complex—a single government payment instead of many programs. The country instituted a two-year pilot program in 2017 that provided 800 euros per month to a group of jobless or skill-less people. But the project sample now involves too few recipients to show much universality, and organizers currently state the only aim is to coax people into accepting low-paying jobs.

Proponents still insist that nationwide implementation of UBI in Finland would streamline social security, as well as put to rest another bugbear in Finnish welfare: People sometimes refuse work in order to receive more handouts.

Swiss voters considered the idea in a national referendum in 2016, and 78 percent cast a “no” ballot. Daniel Straub, Swiss co-chairman of The Peoples Initiative for an Unconditional Basic Income told me, “We are now in a slow process of changing the paradigm.” He said the results of the referendum are due to people needing to “overcome familiar thought patterns.” The larger goal—far from poverty alleviation— is rebooting how Swiss society “thinks about work and income.”

The million-dollar question in every discussion of UBI is how to fund it. Zuckerberg argues for natural resource sales such as Alaska’s annual oil dividend paid to the state’s citizens. But UBI still amounts to a single-payer system for income.

Back in 2002, the Canadian province of Quebec enacted Bill 112 (an Act to Combat Poverty and Social Exclusion) and researched the effects of giving every resident a guaranteed minimum income. Laval University researchers then published a 2009 behavioral microsimulation study, concluding that the Quebec proposal “would have a large negative impact on hours of work and labor force participation—and mostly so among low-income workers.” It would also require a minimum outlay of $2.2 billion per year to implement.

In September, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden weighed in, saying the American ideal is still “a steady job that rewards hard work.” Presumably, that includes low-wage jobs. National Review’s Oren Cass said at least a low-paying job provides what a handout never does: a deepening of skills, experience, and social network possibilities.

Forbes writer Frances Coppola asked, “Can giving people the basic means to live, with no strings attached, encourage them to find employment?” The U.S. answer is that many citizens already receive basic welfare benefits, with little net change in social or employment mobility. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development calculated that a guaranteed basic income would “not be an effective tool for reducing income poverty.”

“But even if it could work, it should be rejected on principle,” Cass said. “A UBI would redefine the relationship between individuals, families, communities, and the state by giving government the role of provider. It would make work optional and render self-reliance moot.”

Associated Press/Photo by Jae C. Hong Associated Press/Photo by Jae C. Hong A teen at the Beachwood House group home for foster children in Los Angeles

Fostering success

Diamond Hyman is an upbeat teen whose reading interests include theology and entrepreneurship. In the California foster care system since age 3, she is now 19. She tried living on her own when she turned 18 but ended up homeless. Since California law allows foster youth to have access to services and facilities until age 21, she requested to be brought back in.

Diamond’s case typifies the system’s big issue: Long-term home placement of foster kids—especially those with behavioral problems—is a slow process, even with money earmarked for recruiting foster parents. It means several thousand youth are saturating the state’s system of short-term facilities.

“The bottom line is the placements aren’t there,” said Maire Mullaly, an attorney representing youth in California’s temporary facilities.

In March 2016, Los Angeles County shut down its emergency one-day “welcome centers” and moved to a system of privately managed, three-day shelters for foster kids.

But an extra two days in transitional housing is unrealistic in a slow-process system, said Michael Nash, former presiding judge of Los Angeles County’s Juvenile Court. And many kids cycle through the shelters repeatedly, so youth often end up overstaying by weeks and months. Data shows that about 800 kids, or 20 percent of the total, overstayed between March 2016 and October 2017.

With kids overstaying and repeatedly entering and leaving facilities, it’s hard to work toward long-term goals, said Nick Tran, program manager at the David and Margaret Youth and Family Services transitional shelter care facility in La Verne, Calif. And people offering a more permanent foster or group home placement want evidence of a teen’s stability before granting their acceptance.

Diamond’s great hope was a home with a foster mother, but her behavior scares people away. She readily acknowledges her history of anger, pot and methamphetamine use, and aggressive tendencies. “We’re traumatic kids in a traumatic place,” she said.

California has experimented with two pilot programs to address the needs of thousands of overstaying youth. Nash likened those initiatives to Band-Aids. Though the state still needs more tools for the task, the 2015 Stone Bill legislation encourages placement of youth in family settings while using current short-term shelters to provide intensive help to youth who cannot get placed with families.

Despite sorrowful stories like Diamond’s, California has decreased its overall foster child population by 45 percent since 2000, tweaking its short-term solutions while advocating for long-term solutions, namely stable families. —R.H.

Associated Press/Photo by Juan A. Lozano Associated Press/Photo by Juan A. Lozano A homeless encampment near downtown Houston

Feeding intolerance in Houston

A Houston community organizer sued the city after he heard of several groups being discouraged from plans to share food with the homeless this past Thanksgiving.

A 2012 charitable feeding ban made it illegal to provide food to more than five homeless people without organizational membership in Houston’s Recognized Charitable Food Service Provider Program.

Plaintiff Phillip Paul Bryant contested the ban on religious grounds. He said it should not be against the law to give food to people in need. Rather, it should be a crime not to give out sustenance. Citing a constitutional right to feed people, Bryant said, “We pursued this lawsuit because … the city was trying to infringe not only on the less fortunate but also trying to discourage good people … from doing the right thing.”

Bryant’s attorney, Eric Dick, added, “We’re just trying to make sure a fellow human doesn’t starve. We aren’t asking for anything else but to give food to those that are less fortunate.”

Both Bryant and Dick have run for the Houston City Council, and previously teamed up to file suit against the city on behalf of residents over a ballot initiative on term limits.

Cities across the country have similar rules to Houston’s. Most—like Atlanta—cite a need to protect the homeless from food that might not meet the standards of the city’s existing health codes. Chattanooga, Tenn., and Cincinnati, Ohio, enforce a system of permits to protect public spaces and parks from becoming gathering spots for the homeless when do-gooders set up impromptu soup kitchens.

Houstonians who skirt the feeding ban could face a $500 fine or jail time.

The city fines the same amount to those who transgress another hotly contested Houston ordinance banning homeless encampments. It says people may not erect anything that resembles a shelter in a public space. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner testified last month to defend the ordinance at a hearing, stating his concern for safety and public health.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt, in a class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, temporarily halted the encampment ban. Hoyt ruled the Houston ordinance violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. Christian Houstonians might agree with Hoyt’s ruling: Controlling social problems by bans on feedings and dwellings in public spaces sounds like cruel and unusual punishment. —R.H.

Good question

WORLD Magazine reporter Sophia Lee points out that the kind of help Americans most want to give to the homeless is the kind many of them need the least: more food. “So why is it that every holiday season, so many churches go on a charity binge, running food drives and donating stuff and serving meals?” she asks. Read her answer in Sophia’s World.—Lynde Langdon

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Rob Holmes

Rob is a World Journalism Institute graduate and former WORLD correspondent.

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  • RC
    Posted: Fri, 12/08/2017 05:51 pm

    I totally agree with Sophia Lee.  Handing out more food and stuff is not a solution.  Mark Z.’s solution will probably work for tiny minority but for the majority of the poor, that is not an answer.  I have work with a variety of poor people and I was surprised how many of them work real hard to get a free handout.  They get to pick their own hours and work as often and as hard as they want.  The idea of showing up to a job five days a week, and doing 2,000 hours a year is totally distasteful.  I think the solution is to start with finding out what is wrong.  What is their history?  Why are they poor?  What price are they willing to pay to move out of poverty?  It would be better to develop a step by step plan that helps at the individual or family level to help the poor, who are really interested, in getting out of poverty.

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 12/11/2017 05:42 am

    In a town close to us there is a program (run by Christians) that takes in a few people at a time and works with them to move them from homelessness and poverty to a situation where they have a job and a home.  From what I have seen it works for some but others, as might be expected, simply ride out the program and then go right back to living on the streets.  People need a change of heart.  As long as they perceive their problem as someone else's fault they simply take what they can get and move on the the next program.  

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 12/20/2017 09:38 pm

    Mr. Zuckerberg should put his money where his mouth is.  Let us see him guarantee lifetime income to the first 100,000 applicants, no questions asked.  $10,000 per year per person, adjusted for inflation annually, would be a good start.  Then I might consider contributing of my own tax dollars to such a boondoggle.