There are many reasons to want a Universal Basic Income for the United States–a decided upon minimum cash transfer that goes to everyone regardless of what kind of job they have or whether they have one–but recently we have not brought up the declining mental and physical health of Americans and our downward slide in world longevity comparisons. Toxic stress is stress that is unrelenting in its intensity and duration, so much so that the body can’t handle it. It piles up. Unrelieved, it breaks the body down.
Think of a stressful event you had that didn’t last long. You step off a curb, distracted, and almost get hit by a bus. You jump back. You are unhurt, but your body released stress hormones to help you react to a real danger. For at least a few minutes, your heart races and you can’t focus. Eventually you calm down, and you feel like your old self again. Or you got stuck at an all day meeting and had to sit through it with no break for food. You couldn’t concentrate you were so hungry.
Now imagine feeling like that during hours, even days at a time. You not only have to get through your meeting without food, you have to get through a whole week with minimal food. Or you are three months behind on your rent. You avoid your landlord. When you get a knock at the door, your heart races. Your stress about how to pay follows you to bed so you can’t sleep well. You awaken with a stomach ache every day from worry. You visit a social services agency to get help for your back rent, which is due in 5 days, and the staff tells you that although you just spent an hour telling her why you can’t pay your bills, that you will have to give them 30 days to review your case. You panic: that isn’t fast enough. You fear homelessness. You can’t concentrate on anything.
Now imagine you have a child. Your stress triples thinking about her. How will you last 30 days while they “review” your file? What will you do to make sure you have enough food for her? You ask if they have a pantry. They say yes, but it isn’t open at that moment. It will be open on Saturday, just come back then, they tell you. Your heart races more, your mind feels numb, you can’t think clearly. That is your toxic stress at work.
The toxic stress that economic troubles, homelessness and poverty bring on are making mental illness grow in the United States. According to Shonkoff and Garner (American pediatricians) “unemployment and forced mobility disrupt the social networks that stabilize communities and families.” Forced mobility is another way to say losing your home. These disruptions have been found to have a lasting negative effect on our mental health. Today in America, as we confront the fact we have an inadequate safety net and vanishing jobs, just the fear of job loss and homelessness are increasing the levels of toxic stress we live with. Toxic stress has a particularly awful effect on our children: significant adversity causes toxic stress which causes lifelong permanent impairments in children’s learning, behavior, and mental health. Children who are exposed to lack of basics experience stress so intense that it is a catalyst for chronic stress related disease later in their lives.
A Universal Basic Income to each of us, sufficient to purchase decent housing, healthful food, and other basics would end the evils of homelessness and destitution, which would allow us to cure ourselves gradually of the mental health problems and chronic disease that toxic stress brings on. When we reduce the amount of significant adversity our children have, we will see the fruits of it in more healthy Americans, less crime, less chronic disease. All these gains equal money saved, which in turn helps to fund a Universal Basic Income system.
We need to pick up our pens and our phones and ask our federal representatives to take a position on Universal Basic Income. We can’t wait. 2018 is here, and we have politicians who propose continuing the failed and inadequate welfare programs known as “Welfare Reform” even though there is plenty of evidence they are leaving people in hunger and desperation. And they want to add more requirements! (think, obstacles) to getting help.
And we have other politicians who want to “fix” poverty through leaving “Welfare Reform” as defective as it is, and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit, as their poverty solution–a proposal you can easily see is fated to fail: you can only get an Earned Income Credit if you have a paid job–and technology experts who support a Universal Basic Income already say that 38% of today’s paid jobs will disappear in the next 20 years. Among the jobs lost will be 35 million truck driving jobs. Poof! Gone! What kind of toxic stress will the children of those drivers be put through if we don’t have a Universal Basic Income when those jobs are eliminated?
Any politician who is a defender of children should enthusiastically embrace Universal Basic Income as the only way to assure an immediate life saving reduction of toxic stress in America’s children.