For the last 14 months, a group of 95 people in a Kenyan village have received about $US22 a month from the charity GiveDirectly.
The money, which villagers are free to use however they want, is part of an experiment in universal basic income, or UBI. The idea is a radical solution to poverty that involves people getting regular paychecks, in exchange for nothing, to help them cover basic costs.
In November 2017, GiveDirectly expanded the 95-person trial to a much larger study of 16,000 people, many of whom will receive money for the next 12 years.
Villagers in the original trial have reported life-changing improvements from the money. Here’s what a handful of people had to say.
Margaret Abagi, 70, has used the money for home repairs and medication.
Abagi has long had difficulty tending to her farm and finding relief from her stomach aches, which she suspects are signs of ulcers.
Basic income has given her the ability to stop asking her son, a professor, for money. With help from her caregiver, she can travel into town to visit the hospital or pay for materials if parts of her mud house begin to crumble.
“I know I will get better because there is money that I’m going to use for the hospital bill,” Abagi said.
Peres Riako Onywero Obambo, 75, no longer has to beg her daughter for money.
Obambo watches after two orphaned girls and helps care for her adult son, who has an undiagnosed mental disorder. She said working for money in her old age isn’t always an option.
The basic income money has allowed her to stop asking her daughter, who works in Nairobi, for money. Now she can take care of the two girls and buy food for son.
“I can tell you, this village has changed,” Obambo said. “People’s lives have changed. We don’t have conflict anymore. There is peace in this village because people look at themselves as if they are equal.”
Edwin Odongo Anyango, a 30-year-old laborer, can finally buy milk for his family.
Anyango has been able to build on the meager savings from his manual-labour jobs, cover preschool fees for one of his children, and buy a new mattress, cupboard, and better-quality cushions for his couch.
His family can also buy milk on a regular basis. Before the money came in, they could only afford it a handful of days out of the month.
“If this money were to be given to everybody, this would be a very good thing,” Anyango said. “What this money does is it creates hope. And when people have hope, they are happy.”
Agrippa Agida Onywero Krispo, 40, has taken a riskier approach to using the money.
Krispo has used his recent payments to rebuild parts of his home, record a CD, and gamble on sporting events. He said he treats the gambling as a kind of investment strategy – a way to quickly turn $US10 into $US50, which he can then use on more sensible purchases like food and clothes.
Gambling also helps Krispo recoup losses he recently incurred from recording his CD, he said. After Krispo completed the album, his recording partner disappeared with the money that was supposed to go toward making copies to sell.
“For my next project I am going to be more careful,” Krispo said. “I’m not going to make the same mistake because I think about that money that I put into the production, that I can’t now get back, and I feel very angry.”
Monica Atieno Aswan, 28, has gained newfound freedom.
Like many of GiveDirectly’s female recipients, Aswan said the money has enabled her to become more independent person.
“This money has really changed my life,” she said. Even if she doesn’t have money to spare, Aswan said she can borrow from others knowing she’ll get the money eventually to pay back the debt.
“If there is a funeral and I want to go attend and I need bus fare,” she said, “I don’t need to sit here and wait for my husband.”
Maurice Owiti, 47, no longer feels the pressure of being his family’s sole provider.
It is common in Kenyan villages for husbands to feel tremendous pressure and frustration if their work day doesn’t yield enough for their family. In Owiti’s case, he and his wife struggled to pay for food and fees for their oldest son’s education. Often, they had to delay payment for the fees.
Now that he gets basic income, Owiti and his wife have a happier marriage because they don’t argue over money as much, he said. Since his wife also receives the money, he said they both feel freer than before.
“Now we are all very peaceful,” he said.