When I travelled across the country to report out this podcast, I found myself doing a lot of thinking about “the good life.” As I talked with folks who are struggling to make ends meet about guaranteed income, it became clear to me very quickly that what is on people’s minds isn’t captured by a conversation about one specific economic policy.

As soon as you start talking to people about money—about what it feels like not to have it, about what would be different if you had just a little bit more—the conversations becomes about something more fundamental to our experience as humans.

Money has a practical impact on our daily lives, but the sense of scarcity that so many of us feel when it comes to money also affects our sense of wellbeing. Money (or the absence of it) can limit what you think is possible for your life, how you’re able to spend time with your loved ones, where you’re able to go, how you feel about yourself, and who you can be. Money, practically and psychologically, impacts how much agency we have. We all want “the good life,” however we define that, and these conversations made me think about what we believe about who deserves it (and who doesn’t).

Part of my work over the last couple of decades has focused on how social capital can mitigate people’s experience of being poor. One of the things I’ve learned is that when people who experience economic injustice get the financial resources they need to care for themselves and their families, they will often expand their focus to support others in their community.

Cash allows you to pay for what you need and want, when you need and want it. When we have that kind of agency, we can make those decisions based on what makes sense in our own lives. That self-determination is what allows us to build our futures.

Could Guaranteed Income be one way of ensuring we all have the agency we need to pursue “the good life”?

Listen to Episode 3 of More Than Enough.

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Show Notes

More Than Enough was developed by Next River Productions. Created and hosted by Mia Birdsong. Audio engineering and music by Nino Moschella. Script development and production by Allison Cook. The content of this podcast was informed by the stories of hundreds of people across the country, only some of whom you heard from. Thank you to everyone who took the time to speak with me and share their story.

Support for the production of More Than Enough was provided by a few generous folks and the Economic Security Project, an organization advancing cash-based interventions in the United States and reigning in corporate monopolies.

More Than Enough is a project of The Nation Magazine.

Full Transcript

Interviewee: Just all those thoughts about not being able to succeed anymore. I always let go of wanting to live the good life because maybe in about 10 years with $120,000 I can try to start making small steps to enjoying a good life instead of thinking about the good life.

Mia Birdsong: I have also been doing a lot of thinking about the good life. As part of this project, I’ve talked about guaranteed income with folks across the country who struggle to make ends meet. It became clear to me very quickly that what’s on people’s minds isn’t captured by a conversation about one specific economic policy. As soon as you start talking to people about money, about what it feels like not to have it, about what would be different if you had just a little bit more, the conversations become about something more fundamental to our experience as humans.

As you heard in the opening with one of the women I spoke with in Jackson, Mississippi, money is weighted with a lot of meaning. It has a practical impact on our daily lives, but the sense of scarcity that so many of us feel when it comes to money also affects our sense of wellbeing. Money, or the absence of it, can limit what you think is possible for your life: how you’re able to spend time with your loved ones, where you’re able to go, how you feel about yourself and who you can be. Money, practically and psychologically, impacts how much agency we have. We all want the good life, however we define that. And these conversations made me think about what we believe about who deserves it and who doesn’t. I’m Mia Birdsong, and this is episode three of More Than Enough.

The idea of unalienable rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has been on my mind. Despite the Founding Fathers’ intentions and exclusions, that pursuit of happiness idea is such a powerful one. My understanding of what Jefferson and company meant wasn’t about joy or perpetual vacation or always getting what you want. What they intended and what resonates with me personally is the idea of thriving and wellbeing.

So if happiness is something that every one of us is entitled to at least try to achieve, then our current setup falls short. Things like overpriced housing and healthcare, underfunding of schools and pervasive racism are a part of life in the United States and are absolutely counter to the pursuit of happiness. Unsurprisingly, money and who has access to it and who doesn’t is enmeshed in these intertwined systems. A study came out in 2010 that pointed to the idea that your happiness increases as you make more money, but only up to $75,000. After you hit $75k, there was no significant correlation between how happy you are and how much money you made.

Rich people weren’t happier. They didn’t report a greater sense of wellbeing, but the orientation of so much of the coverage of this study was, look America, more money doesn’t make you happier, which kind of misses the point. More money does make you happier until you get to $75,000 a year. Do you know how many people actually make that much money in the US? According to the Census, 86% of us make less than $75,000 a year, 86% of us. More money could very well make us happier. Being broke is a significant obstacle to wellbeing. Just take it from this woman I spoke with in Minneapolis.

Interviewee: They say money can’t buy happiness. I say, let’s see, I want to try it. I want to try it, sign me up. I would like to have that firsthand, and I think that having money would just kind of make me … This is a little selfish, excuse me, a better loving person. Because my life is so stressful being a mom and a grandma, paying bills and worrying about this and that, and don’t get a car. Come on. That’s an axle, that’s [inaudible 00:04:15], that’s another worry. And I’m just tired of worrying all the time about making ends meet and this and that, so I’m just saying. That’s why I said it would make me a happier person because I’d be less stressful.

Mia Birdsong: Guaranteed income won’t solve for a lot of economic justice issues, but it could provide some basic security that creates a buffer. One of the most repeated things I heard from people about what guaranteed income would do for them is alleviate the stress of constant financial unpredictability. When folks thought about what it would mean to not have to continually focus their mental energy on the precarious minutiae of their finances, they started talking about their dreams. These conversations about guaranteed income for the most part were not people talking about what lack of money feels like. It was them talking about what would be different in their lives and in the lives of the people they care about if they didn’t have to worry about money so much.

Muffin: My uncle was like, No, you just got a really big muffin in the oven.” So he would just like, “I can’t wait for you to have my little muffin.” He just gave me the nickname Muffin from in the womb.

Mia Birdsong: I met Muffin in Durham. She exemplifies something that I heard from nearly everyone I spoke with. It wasn’t just about what she would do for herself, but it was about what she would do for herself and her community. Regardless of how much money people were making, they were taking care of each other. While working as a home healthcare aid, Muffin had an experience that is both outrageous and typical for Black and Brown people when it comes to the criminal legal system.

Muffin: In 2013, I got pulled over for a broken license plate. And when I gave the police officer my information, he came back and was like, “You know you have warrants for your arrest?” So I got arrested and I had nine charges of elderly abuse and credit card fraud and all this stuff. And I’m like, “You got the wrong person, I didn’t do that.” But I sat in jail for two months and then they let me go because they talked to the victim and the victim said, “Oh no, that’s not her,” and they let me go. So by that time I lost my house, I lost my car and I couldn’t find a job.

Mia Birdsong: The impacts of this wrongful arrest were all the more harmful because she couldn’t pay for a lawyer. Eventually Muffin was able to work with the team at All of Us or None, an organization that fights for the rights of formerly and currently incarcerated people and their families. They got the wrongful arrest expunged from her record. After her experience, Muffin joined up with All of Us or None to ensure that others got the same support she did.

Muffin: I went and got my expungement and then I was like, “I can’t even work in healthcare anymore because now that the blinders are off, and I know that how jacked up the system is, I want to help change it,” as opposed to just work in my everyday life saying, “It ain’t affecting me,” because I couldn’t understand why I went to jail. I was like, “Lord, why am I here?” Now I know why I went because I wouldn’t be able to share my experiences and realize that the system is screwed up.

Mia Birdsong: Muffin experienced a terrible injustice and in figuring out how to rectify it for herself, she realized that the same thing happens to a lot of people. She learned that it happens not because people make bad choices or do something wrong, but because the system is set up this way and the only way to change these systematic issues is to work together. Guaranteed income doesn’t directly address the racism embedded in our criminal legal system, but it can be part of what creates stronger and safer communities.

Muffin: I think my city would be different and my city would be different because if I have everything that I need, then I would definitely want to make sure that my neighbors have everything that they need. And the people that I call community and tribe, I want to make sure that they have everything that they need. So the whole city would be different because everybody would have what they need because I would make sure that they would have it.

Mia Birdsong: Part of my work over the last couple of decades has focused on how social capital can mitigate people’s experience of being poor. One of the things I’ve learned is that when people who experience economic injustice get the financial resources they need to care for themselves and their families, they will often expand their focus to support others in their community. Muffin is committed to changing things not just for herself. She has a clear vision of what she wants for herself, for her family, for her neighbors and for her community, and I saw that again and again.

I saw that generosity and that deep orientation toward community show up in people all the time. It showed up even when it seemed unexpected. One of the group conversations that I held on guaranteed income was in San Francisco. While it’s a city mostly known as being one of the most expensive places to live in the world, it also has a considerable percentage of its residents who are and have been struggling to make ends meet. The workshop was at a senior center that is part of Hope SF, a public housing facility in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. I got to hear from a very intergenerational group of folks.

Mikos: No, no. Listen, listen, listen. Because no, because, because no, because why shouldn’t you have the same … Why shouldn’t you-

Mia Birdsong: In the workshop, [Mikos 00:09:34], who you just heard from, was not really buying what I was selling.

Mikos: Do they deserve that guaranteed income? Let’s keep it solid, half my brothers and sisters do not.

Mia Birdsong: He agreed that there are systemic barriers that make it more difficult to get ahead, but he felt strongly that if he and his family were going to struggle less, then that is on his shoulders.

Mikos: I’m going to have mine and I’m going to get it done and I’m going to make sure the people under me are going to have it done too. I’m the youngest of nine and I seen all eight of them struggle. I don’t want to struggle like that when I’m 26, 27, 30 years old, five kids, four kids. That’s out.

Mia Birdsong: Mikos and I ended up talking after the workshop. During that conversation, he told me that what he really wants to do is open a kind of group home for kids. While he was all bravado and pointed critique during our group conversation, I saw that so much of that comes from the clarity he feels that no one is coming to save him and his family. So he’s going to make something of himself to ensure that their lives will be okay and that the lives of others who may not have someone like him standing up for them will be okay too.

It activated something both fierce and tender inside of me. I want so desperately to make sure that this young man with his determination and big caring heart will get what he needs to realize his dreams. With his personality he is going to move forward no matter what, but the energy he will have to expend dealing with basic bullshit is such a waste. So much of what I heard from people is how they’d benefit from some kind of psychological breathing room: space to reflect, to be contemplative, the kind of space that allows us to feel like whole people.

Part of living as a whole person is having time that is yours to enjoy yourself or figure out who you are and what you want, and to make plans for your future. For me, that meant being connected to and involved with friends and community. You can’t do that if you’re working all the time or stressed out about not having enough money. The people I heard from for this podcast can imagine what it’s like to not worry about money, but there’s a distinction between absence of worry and the ability to imagine a positive future.

Cash allows you to pay for what you need and want, when you need and want it. When we have the kind of agency inherently embedded in cash, we can make those decisions based on what makes sense in our own lives. That self-determination is what allows us to build our futures. Here’s Anthony Newby, a community organizer in Minneapolis, talking a bit about what that cash would mean in his own life.

Anthony Newby: The racialized nature of creativity, I think it would be really interesting to think about what could be unleashed when my 10 year-old son isn’t just taught to believe like everybody in the neighborhood that the only things you’re allowed to be creative at are dribbling a ball or getting on the mic, which my son loves to do both. He’s got sucked into that thing and we’re in it because those are the outlets that are there.

What would it look like for him to think about coding as a viable thing to spend his time on that could be rewarded over time, and he didn’t have to worry about making it out and striking it rich so we have to live in a neighborhood that we live in now, where instead his basic needs were taken care of in perpetuity? I don’t actually know what that would do for our family or our neighborhood or the country, but it’s worth experimenting.

Mia Birdsong: Guaranteed income is an idea worth experimenting with and the conversations that I had across the country, the things that people imagined: barbecues on the weekend, a little pond to fish in, seeing their kids play in the yard without worry, that is about more than money. That is about feeling like you have the freedom, resources and community you need to pursue your own idea of happiness. In the context of capitalism, the economic security that guaranteed income could provide would decrease the number of impossible choices some of us have to make, like the choice between paying rent or putting gas in your car to get to work. Instead, you’re making choices that move your life forward.

Do you go back to school or do you start your own business? Do you work less and spend more time with your loved ones? How much do you save for retirement? How much for emergencies? With more cash you could spend more time just being. That sort of agency and self-determination is more important than folks getting to a place of simple survival. I’m not interested in a settling for survival. I’m interested in more than that because that’s what we were promised. That’s the pursuit of happiness. That’s what America could be, even though it was never meant to be that way for all of us.

Interviewee: I don’t care what community you come from. These children are powerful because they have a mentality that they want to work hard and they understand because they’ve seen it. I’m telling you, it’s so real but it’s so scary.

Interviewee: I used to hustle. I used to sell weed. I used to sell clothes. I used to burn beepers in the store, I used to do it all. So that’s what I’m saying, I done went through trying to find the income to now having an income and I feel it just depends on the person. It don’t matter if, “Oh, he a drug addict so he can’t get $10,000.” No. What he could do with that $10,000 is turn his whole life around in less than a heartbeat and then you’re going to realize like, “Okay yeah, we need to give people like that money.”

Interviewee: My granddaughter, it’s just amazing just to see her educated like that. I think she’d probably one day be president or a doctor. Right now she says she wants to be a doctor.

Interviewee: I have two older sons. So at the time that we moved here they were 10 and 13 years old. So to me these are my baby boys, and yet you have society looking at them and already carving out who they are and who they will be in very negative terms. One son was stopped for walking by our police department because he was skipping and that was supposedly unlikely behavior.

Mia Birdsong: Like physically skipping?

Interviewee: He was physically skipping at 10-

Mia Birdsong: He was showing some joy?

Interviewee: Some joy, yes. But that apparently-

Mia Birdsong: That was suspicious-

Interviewee: Is uncharacteristic and suspicious. And so there are things like that that I see that sort of … Not sort of, definitely can stifle the joy in our children. Where do our children find places for joy?

Mia Birdsong: More Than Enough was developed by Next River Productions, created and hosted by me, Mia Birdsong. Audio engineering and music by Nino Moschella. Script development and production by Alison Cook. The content of this podcast was informed by the stories of hundreds of people across the country, only some of whom you heard from. Thank you to everyone who took their time to speak with me and share their story. Support for the production of More Than Enough was provided by a few generous folks at the Economic Security Project, an organization advancing cash-based interventions in the United States and reigning in corporate monopolies. More Than Enough is a project of The Nation magazine.

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