What it’s like living with a basic income

I’ve been given $250,000 over a decade. Has it been a good investment?

I live in NZ, a relatively wealthy country. Despite our national wealth, nearly 30% of Kiwi kids live in poverty:

NZ Children’s Commission Report, 2016 http://www.occ.org.nz/assets/Publications/AreWeThereYet.pdf

I’ve been at the other end of the spectrum. Since I was about 5, I’ve been supported by a trust fund. I’ve previously felt massively embarrassed and ashamed to say this. It’s difficult to admit to myself, let alone others, that I’ve had it so financially easy. It’s taken me a decade to be able to say this.

I had my $96,000 University Degree paid from a trust fund. That same fund has dumped $15,000 in my bank every year for 10 years. For comparison, the job-seeker benefit is $9,000 — $12,000/year. This has been happening since I was 17. I’m 27 now. That’s 10 years. That’s $150,000 + $96,000 University Fees. I’ve had ~$250,000 invested in me over the last decade.

What does that mean? I don’t have to worry about surviving. For me paying the bills hasn’t felt like success. What does success look like when it’s not survival? After 10 years of chasing adrenaline, women, status and career, I currently feel that success is being deeply loving, honest and strong— helping others, and working for the long-term good of everything. Why did it take me so long to get to this?

I had an average hollywood movie teenage/university experience. Angsty, fairly self absorbed. Much concern about trying to get with a girl, wanting to hang out with the cool kids, trying to be top in class.

In the 11 years from age 10 to 21, I’d hung out nearly exclusively with relatively privileged pakeha within 2 years of my age. I’d not hung out with any younger kids, let alone any living in poverty. I’d not hung out with anyone older, except my parents, my grandma occasionally. I considered Te Reo a dead language — who would want to learn it? I didn’t live in NZ, I lived on a tiny island of people like me.

When it came to the money I was getting, I didn’t really think twice about spending it on myself. It was easy. It wasn’t complicated. It made things very good and easy in the short term. No one around me showed signs of desperately needing anything.

One Saturday night, walking home from a University party with a girl, a couple of Maori boys followed us. They were about 15. One of them walked over and punched me in the face, knocking me to the road. The other grabbed a wine bottle from the gutter and would have laid into me if Jeanine hadn’t bravely stepped in giving us time to run off. In hindsight, I can understand their frustration.

After graduating, I got an job with a lovely engineering firm. Eight months later I quit to roam around South America with $12,000 of trust money. No responsibilities. 21 years old. I hitchhiked Chile’s desert coast with opera singing truck drivers, engineers, businessmen, an old fisherman who kept falling asleep and nearly driving us into the huge hot sandstone crags that bent the long coastal plateau road north. Following whims, entertaining and being entertained, trying to get a sense of life for other people, I wound up on Mancora beach in northern Peru. Lying in the sand and sun on my own, surrounded by young Europeans, Americans, Israelis fresh out of their army duty, and the wealthy of Lima, I suddenly felt totally empty. What the hell was I doing? I’d spent 4 months trying to please myself, and now I found myself lonely and unhappy.

Since then I’ve been trying to get out of my bubble, to understand and engage with politics, climate change and economics. With climate change, it seems the most important changes needed to our behaviors and values as a societies. We need more political engagement, a more engaged and perceptive public. In economics we need more creativity, drive and innovation to fuel our exports and create value in our economy. With our aging population we need more care and understanding to prevent our old people dying in the careless hands of machines and stressed, underpaid care workers.

Kids who are worrying about getting enough food on the table are unlikely to be able to focus on developing relationships, creativity and skills. It will be difficult for them to contribute to our democracy, economy, environment in the future.

With the curiosity and skills and experiences my financial support has given me, I feel I have a lot to contribute to these challenges NZ faces-and to those we have yet to face.

If all kids in NZ had the financial support I had (even a fraction of it), how would our society look? How would we meet these challenges of climate change, aging, of surviving global economics? How much financial support do kids need to protect their curiosity and creativity from fear and hunger? How could we support them to invest the money wisely?

There are things I found difficult to develop due to my financial support: Strength of will. Determination. An understanding of the worth of money, the consequence of not having it. A commitment to work. How could I have developed these earlier?

And why did it take me 10 years to get to this understanding of my journey and the society and world I live in? I knew a lot of calculus and organic chemistry 10 years ago. I suspect a lack of social mixing slowed my development — a lack of diversity in my communities. After living with Maori friends, singing waiata, I now understand why Te Reo is important. It is beautiful. It is a different and valuable lens to the world. There is a wonderful warmth in Maori and Pacific culture that gives NZ culture it’s homely flavour, a warmth we need now more than ever. After living with people from financially poor backgrounds, I understand the immense challenge of getting through university without support, and why so many of their friends didn’t. Seeing a wonderful, kind, creative friend forced to leave friends and the country due to a burden of debt, I understand the consequences of debt on society.

I wondered why so many good people working on climate change and economics seemed to care so much about “Social Justice”. Now I too see it as a root problem, in our societal struggled with crime, climate, economics etc. Though to me it is less about justice, and more about simple resource allocation. Some don’t have enough. Some (like me, I think) have had more than we need. How do those of us who have a lot figure out how much is enough? And how do we gracefully move the extra into the hands of those with not enough?

Writing this has been challenging — it has required me to deeply acknowledge the very uncomfortable truth and extent of my privilege. Since writing this and discussing it with Rich Bartlett, I have reconsidered my relationship with money. I currently take a kaitiaki role with money given and earned, rather than a possessor role. It is a very limited resource, where is it best spent? In my hands maybe it gives me too much time to ponder decisions and think about long term choices — while others are forced to make short term decisions to get resources to stay afloat.

The deep acknowledgement of my privilege and mindset shift from ownership has made it easier for me to share the financial resource I’ve been randomly bestowed.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions, your experiences, and your questions. Please post them in the comments below.