Silicon Valley's biggest startup farm just hired a leader for its basic income experiment

Silicon Valley’s largest startup accelerator, Y Combinator, just revealed who will lead the basic income experiment that the company first announced this past January.

Elizabeth Rhodes, a recent Ph.D. grad in Social Work and Political Science at the University of Michigan, will head the project as its Research Director, Y Combinator’s president Sam Altman announced in a blog post.

Rhodes, whose dissertation focused on bringing health and education to impoverished communities in Nairobi, Kenya, was chosen from more than 1,000 applicants for the position. Before being selected, she was put through a 30-day trial period.

“Elizabeth stood out as the right candidate based on her aptitude and her ambition,” Altman writes. “We’re very excited to work with her.”

Altman believes Y Combinator, whose past success stories include Reddit, Airbnb, and Zenefits, has the ability to lead the first successful basic income project in the US. In the experiment, the company will distribute a fixed amount of money to a group of people at regular intervals, regardless of the participants’ income levels or whether they’re employed at all.

To that end, Altman also just announced that Y Combinator’s first test site will be in Oakland, California.

The Bay Area city will play host to a pilot study, which will be conducted ahead of the larger nationwide experiment. No details have been released yet about the number of participants or how much money they will receive, but the stipends will be distributed unconditionally, even if an individual stops working or changes addresses.

Altman says Oakland was chosen because it offers an ideal mix of income levels and is socially diverse enough to provide insights about how a nation-wide basic income experiment might fare.

“If the pilot goes well, we plan to follow up with the main study,” Altman explains. “If the pilot doesn’t go well, we’ll consider different approaches.”

Over the last year, basic income has been heralded by economists and tech elites as a novel solution to rising wealth inequality. A steady basic income — called “basic” because the amount is large enough only to cover essentials like food, shelter, and clothing — could provide the poor with enough security to get them back on their feet.

In addition to Y Combinator’s announcement, experiments are expected to begin as early as late 2016 or early 2017 in Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, and East African countries, such as Kenya.

The US has also seen basic income before — Richard Nixon gave the system a try
in the 1960s, but it never left the ground due to a shift in the public opinion about welfare models.

According to Altman, the upcoming pilot led by Rhodes will indicate whether America is finally ready to revisit the idea.

“We think everyone should have enough money to meet their basic needs — no matter what, especially if there are enough resources to make it possible,” he writes. “We don’t yet know how it should look or how to pay for it, but basic income seems a promising way to do this.”

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