The Giving-Free-Cash-To-The-Poor-Will-Make-Them-Lazy Myth

I would like to clarify one thing here since my previous-previous entry was about Universal Basic Income (UBI). Giving cash to the poor will not make them lazy, or use the money for leisure purposes. As of today, there is no single study is able to prove that giving free cash will discourage people from generating additional economic returns (fancy word for working).

Based from my experience in this subject, when people get free cash, they will do two things. First, they will buy food. Second, they reinvest on themselves such as buying fertilizer for their crop, start a new business, and make sure their children stay in school.

There are numerous of studies here. These are few examples:

Uganda, Kahn Et al, 2015. Cash Transfers to Increase Antenatal Care Utilization in Kisoro, Uganda: A Pilot Study. 

“Cash transfers have been used to incentivize participation in health services. We examined whether modest cash transfers for participation in antenatal care would increase antenatal care attendance and delivery in a health facility.”

Latin America, Ham, 2014. The Impact of Conditional Cash Transfers on Educational Inequality of Opportunity.

“The main results indicate that groups considered vulnerable gain more in terms of access to education and that these interventions help level the playing field. They do not eliminate inequality of opportunity but are certainly a useful complement to equity-enhancing policies.”

Kenya, Kilburn et al, 2016. Effects of a Large-Scale Unconditional Cash Transfer Program on Mental Health Outcomes of Young People in Kenya.

“This study provides evidence that poverty-targeted unconditional cash transfer programs, can improve the mental health of young people in low-income countries.”

Brazil, Glewwe & Lucia Kassouf, 2012. The impact of the Bolsa Escola/Familia conditional cash transfer program on enrollment, dropout rates and grade promotion in Brazil

We examine the impact of Brazil’s Bolsa Escola/Familia program on Brazilian children’s education outcomes. Bolsa provides cash payments to poor households if their children (ages 6 to 15) are enrolled in school. Using school census data to compare changes in enrollment, dropping out and grade promotion across schools that adopted Bolsa at different times, we estimate that the program has: increased enrollment by about 5.5% (6.5%) in grades 1–4 (grades 5–8); lowered dropout rates by 0.5%.

It is the same for Malaysia as well. According to a study made by Kamaruddin et al, 2013, half of the money given from BR1M (Malaysia’s cash transfer program) was spent on basic necessities such as food, transportation and clothing.

In nominal terms, if the person is given RM500, I would say around RM340 will be spent on these items. Also based on their findings, around RM55 is spent on education, investment, and starting a business, and only RM20 is spent on “recreation”.

HH Expenditure 2016

Source: Department of Statistics Malaysia

If we look this from a bigger context, their findings correlate with the latest Household Expenditure Survey released last year. As we can see from the graph, those in the B40 (RM3,000 and less) group spend around 30% of its whole expenditure on food. You could also see that as income group goes higher, the proportion of expenditure on food decreases, while “restaurants and hotels” goes up. One explanation is, as your income goes higher, you substitute food from home to buying food from restaurants instead.

So, the argument of giving cash to the poor will make them lazy so far hasn’t been proven (yet).

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Malaysia, it is time to talk about Universal Basic Income

This is a response to Tun Daim’s comment on basic income. I have been waiting for a year for a Malaysian politician to publicly voice this one out, and it is about damn time we should discuss about this seriously.

I am going to take this to a broader perspective. Let’s expand this to a more ‘universal’ point of view. So this post is about Universal Basic Income, or UBI.

What is UBI?
The idea of UBI is the government (or in few case studies, private entity) hands you a certain amount of cash each month, and you are allowed to do anything you want with the money.

Yes, whatever you want.

The idea of UBI is not new. As matter of fact, it was introduced way back in the 17th century by Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice, where he proposed a system where everyone would receive an equal capital grant (or basic income) given by the government.

Former US President Richard Nixon was so close getting the UBI program going. But the plan was killed down by the Senate.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton was thinking about including UBI into her agenda as well.

So, here is my argument why UBI might be necessary? Automation and poverty.

The increasing interest on UBI was due to jobs being automated. In an article written by Straubhaar, he wrote:

“Jobs will be lost and it remains uncertain how many new jobs will be created to replace them. Thus, concerns are rising about the future of employment, the viability of social welfare and the financial stability of social security systems.”

When Finland ran its UBI program, their youth unemployment was 19% (Malaysia’s was around 10%). Decent jobs now are limited. This means, if could provide some cash for these group, it will encourage entrepreneurship. This explains why Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Muck, and Richard Branson are supporting this program. This is because if the work they are trying to do does not work out, at least UBI will be able to provide a safety net for the person.

Another reason why UBI will be necessary is that it will reduce poverty. When cash is given to an individual, he or she will be able to escape from living under poverty. You can study the outcome of every cash transfer program in this world, and more people were able to leave poverty thanks to the program.

Why choose UBI?
These are the pros of UBI. First, it provides a better social economic welfare. When Namibia ran a pilot test between 2008 and 2009, they found there was a drop in the number of malnourished children, a decreased poverty rate, increased income, and a lower crime rate.

Second reason, UBI could substitute or at least complement the existing welfare programs. The idea of UBI is to give out cash to everyone. Other program such as food stamps or targeted cash transfers will not work in my opinion. This is because targeted cash transfer will cost more (efficiency reason, you have to ask the person if he is eligible or not), and food stamps will not be effective to push down poverty (because food stamps ain’t paying the bills).

The case of “against” UBI.
The question arises when free money is given out, that the person who receives it might have less incentive to work. But every basic income programs that were held up until today, studies found that people who receive it work more than they were supposed to.

I understand that those who oppose UBI argue that UBI will be very expensive, and raise the question of how a UBI will be funded. This was the main reason why the Swiss voted against a proposed UBI back in 2016.

Many calculations out there were focusing on the UBI’s price tag itself (even OECD made this mistake), not on its net transfer.

The math behind UBI
Let me explain how UBI works (using Scott Santens’ calculation, since it is simpler to understand)

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Let’s say in Malaysia, there are 5 income groups, ranging between RM0 to RM2,000, RM2,001 to RM4,000, as shown above.

Assuming each group contributes 8% of their income, that means the RM2,000 income group will contribute RM160. The RM4,000 income group will contribute RM320, and the list goes on. That means, in the end of this process, the money collected will be RM2,400.

If we want to equally distribute to all of these group, that means each and every single of them will get RM480. Sounds fair right?

That means, the net gain for the RM2,000 group is RM320. This is because initially, he had contribute RM160 into the pool. So, when he gets the RM480 basic income, his final amount will be:

RM2,000 (initial money in pocket) – RM160 (contribution) + RM480 (basic income) = RM2,320.

Confused? Let’s take the RM8,000 group as another example. So initially, he has RM8,000 in his pocket. Now he will contribute 8% (or RM640) of his income into the pool.

In this example, everyone gets a RM480 basic income. That means, in the end of the day, his final amount will be:

RM8,000 (initial money in pocket) – RM640 (contribution) + RM480 (basic income) = RM7,840.

Hold on. He actually lost RM160! Yes that is correct. That is the whole point of this program. A progressive income tax will work efficient in this case, and it is more socially fair for those in the higher income tier to contribute more.

How this will work for Malaysia?
If you are paying attention to my calculation, you must have realized that the income distributed was RM480. This is because Malaysia’s poverty line is RM800. The rule of thumb of UBI is 60% of the poverty line. So that explains how I got RM480 in the first place.

So, if we calculate this using Malaysia Household Expenditure Survey 2016 provided by DOS. Using the same methodology like what I had calculated above, here are my findings:

  1. If we would like to distribute RM480 to everyone, that means everyone needs to contribute 10.7% of their monthly income.
  2. The breakeven point (the midpoint between net gain versus net loss) is between those who received between RM4,135.25 to RM4532.19. This is reasonable since the median income for the whole income group is around RM4,000.

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In the case of Malaysia, I personally think that we are not ready for a full scale basic income program (yet). This means a smaller program will work better at this moment. If I have to choose, I prefer to give it out to the poorer states first such as Kedah, Kelantan, or Sabah.

These are some evidence of successful UBI experiments

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These are few cities/countries are implementing the UBI program

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And these are the few still considering UBI in the future

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