Universal Basic Income vs. Addiction

Will giving people free money create more addicts?

“Stack of Cash” by Ken Teegardin is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Each time I write about universal basic income, some of the same criticisms pop up. One of these critiques focuses on the effect that UBI would have on drug addiction. Commenters say: This will make our drug problem worse. We can’t talk about UBI until we solve our opiate crisis.

The steps to arrive at this conclusion are straightforward enough. People use drugs and alcohol, sometimes to excess. Many addicts will spend more than they can afford to satisfy their habit. Therefore, giving these addicts more money via basic income means they will put this extra money towards drugs. The claim is: More money will lead to more addiction.

But is this really the case? Cash transfer programs have already been in use in a number of different countries, so we can take a look at what they’ve found. In fact, a meta-study from 2014 did just that: It analyzed 44 estimates of drug and alcohol spending across 19 studies and 13 different programs. What did they find?

From the summary:

Well, do they waste the money on alcohol and cigarettes or not? They do not. When we examine 44 estimates of spending on alcohol and tobacco across 19 studies and 13 interventions (i.e., Oportunidades/PROGRESA is very well studied), we find that the vast majority of estimates (82%) are negative. More than a quarter are negative and significant, and only 2 are positive and significant. With both of the positive and significant estimates, estimates within the study are discordant (i.e., one positive and one negative).

The meta-study looked at a wide variety of cash transfer programs, some that required conditions, some that were unconditional; some with a focus on children and families, others that distributed money to all eligible adults. While it’s hard to compare the effectiveness of one program to another, it is possible to look at research within each program and discover a trend across the programs.

Out of 44 estimates of drug and alcohol spending, 82% of these studies showed a decrease in spending. In fact, researchers found only two instances in which cash transfers led to an increase in spending. However, separate studies of these same two programs found the opposite effect — cash transfers decreased spending on alcohol and tobacco. Looking at the whole picture, the findings from this meta-study show us that we shouldn’t accept as fact the notion that giving people money will lead to more drug use and addiction.


Preliminary research from the meta-study explained above has shown that giving people basic income payments won’t increase addiction. This is important on its own, but there might be even more to discover if we dig a little deeper. Not only did spending not rise, the meta-study found that over a quarter of the studies showed a significant negative effect of cash transfers on drug and alcohol consumption. This means that many participants who received extra money chose to reduce their spending on alcohol and tobacco. Why might this be?

To answer this question, we need to review some old but important research on drugs. Back in the 1960s, psychologists often researched the effects of opiates by testing them on rats. They found that when rats were given an opiate solution to drink alongside water, they greatly preferred the opiates. It seemed as though just sampling the drugs once had flipped on a switch inside their brain, immediately turning them into addicts.

This finding was perfectly in line with all of the beliefs of the day (and to this day) about the cascading effects of addiction. But, years later, psychologist Bruce Alexander wondered if there wasn’t something more to the situation. After all, these rats were trapped in tiny cages with very little room to move around in and almost nothing to do. When offered the opiate solution, they scurried to it. The drug was an escape from an otherwise meaningless life.

Maybe, the psychologist thought, it was the environment that fostered this tendency towards addiction, not the drug itself. To study this, Alexander and his colleagues built a new home for the rats, one with exercise wheels and climbable objects and plenty of space to run around. He filled the home with rats of both genders, allowing them to play and mate and generally enjoy themselves. This was Rat Park.

Rat Park, Bruce Alexander

The opiate solution was still available to these rats if they wanted to drink it. But in contrast to earlier studies, rats living in Rat Park paid almost no attention to the drug. Researchers found that these rats drank less than a quarter of the amount of opiate solution consumed by the rats who lived in tiny, solitary cages.

Later on, Alexander tested what would happen if he placed addicted rats — those who had spent weeks in cages drinking the opiates— into Rat Park. Would they carry their addiction with them? He found that even these rats preferred regular water over the opiate solution. Drug addiction was no match for a stimulating environment.

Author Johann Hari, who has written extensively about this topic in his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, discusses these findings and explains how they reflect human behavior. Just as the rats’ addiction was mediated by its environment, the same is true for human addiction.

In an article for the Huffington Post, Hari writes:

If you get run over today and you break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. In the hospital around you, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief. The heroin you will get from the doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street-addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it. So if the old theory of addiction is right — it’s the drugs that cause it; they make your body need them — then it’s obvious what should happen. Loads of people should leave the hospital and try to score smack on the streets to meet their habit.
But here’s the strange thing: It virtually never happens. As the Canadian doctor Gabor Mate was the first to explain to me, medical users just stop, despite months of use. The same drug, used for the same length of time, turns street-users into desperate addicts and leaves medical patients unaffected.

It isn’t the drugs themselves that cause addiction — it’s the situation. The same drug will lead to vastly different outcomes depending on what kind of environment the drug user is in. But what about the environment makes such a difference?

Hari continues:

Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.
So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.

When the rats had companions to play with in Rat Park, their interest in drugs all but disappeared. In the same way, a human who can make meaningful, personal connections will be less likely to fall prey to addiction. The difference between a medical patient using heroin and an addict on the street is that the former lives in an environment that fosters human bonding. Friends and family may visit the patient while they are recovering. The patient probably has a loving home to return to after the hospital stay. The street-user, on the other hand, lives in an environment that only allows him to bond with the drug. Their attachment to heroin is stronger than any human bond they may have.

As Hari says, these examples show that human connection is the opposite of addiction, much more than sobriety. This idea, however, is not a solution on its own. For that, we have to go one step further: How do we support human connection? What policies or programs can address this fundamental need?

Imagine Rat Park on a human scale, with friends to hang out with and experiences to share. This resembles any typical city or town center, filled with movie theaters, restaurants, music venues, and sports arenas. Hundreds of activities are available, where you can bond with old friends or make brand new ones. Opportunity at your fingertips. This is what any program would need to promote: social participation. This is the human connection that can both fight addiction and prevent it from happening at all.

But how do you get from a tiny, bare apartment comprised of you and your drugs to a wide world of friends and activities? Money.

If you can barely pay rent, you might forego your monthly gym membership. Forget dining out with a friend or taking dance lessons; you don’t even have the budget for a babysitter. Researchers recently found that money does buy happiness, up to a point. Emotional well-being is positively correlated with income up to around $75,000: earning any more than that will still influence your life evaluation, but not your personal happiness. This research speaks strongly to the idea that having enough money to cover your basic needs is one of the fundamental requirements for happiness.

Conversely, the same study found that having a low income was correlated with high emotional pain. To bring this back to the topic at hand, other research has shown that high emotional pain can lead to self-medication with drugs and alcohol. Drug abuse often stems from self-medication, and the need to self-medicate comes from emotional pain. Therefore, if we provide people with a higher income, we should be able to both increase happiness and decrease emotional pain. This is the way to end addiction.


Unquestionably, having enough money to live on is a good thing. This is true whether you’re providing for family, battling personal demons, or just don’t want your power shut off in the middle of winter.

More study is needed to untangle the complex web of poverty and drug use, but so far evidence points to the idea that poverty is the underlying factor for many negative outcomes. The Rat Park study showed that a stimulating environment is enough to circumvent drug addiction. Building personal bonds and taking part in an enriching world is still possible without financial means, but it would make positive outcomes much easier to achieve.

If we want to build policies that work, we must be guided by data, not emotions. Many people dismiss UBI outright because they feel that it would worsen addiction, but the evidence does not support this. Indeed, when states passed legislation to require that welfare recipients be drug tested in order to receive benefits, they found that welfare recipients had lower rates of drug use than the national average. Not only are these programs a spectacular waste of money, but they reinforce the notion that drug abuse leads to poverty, not the other way around. Furthermore, these programs may have scared away those in poverty who do use drugs from seeking benefits at all, even though financial assistance is exactly what they need to get off drugs in the first place.

As I have shown in my previous essays, people will generally do what’s best for themselves if given the means and opportunity. This what UBI offers: unconditional and universal financial assistance. Giving money to low-income adults will allow them to gain control over their lives. This control will positively impact their physical and mental health. Keeping the benefit unconditional will give adults the freedom to make their own choices, which will enable long-lasting, positive behaviors. Having a universal program means that financial support will not drop off suddenly, leaving those who depend on it in a precarious position. Rather than promoting or feeding drug abuse, universal basic income gives people the ability to forge social connections with others, which may actually be our best solution for addiction.