Dolly Parton: basic income trailblazer?

Among the numbers used to demonstrate the need for a basic income today, one sticks to the ribs like no other: almost half of Americans cannot come up with $400 to cover an emergency expense. That emergency could be as mundane as a towed car, as harrowing as a trip to the emergency room, or as catastrophic as a natural disaster overtaking your family home. Last fall the people of Gatlinburg, Tennessee found themselves in just such a predicament as deadly fires ripped through Sevier County, leaving thousands of families homeless.

Enter Dolly Parton, who, within 48 hours of the fires had mobilized the considerable force of her empire, including many businesses and the philanthropic Dollywood Foundation, to provide cash assistance to families impacted in her native Sevier County. Over the next six months, the My People’s Fund distributed $9 million in cash to nearly 1000 families who had lost their homes. The way the checks were structured will sound familiar to any student of basic income; each family received a monthly check for $1000 for six months, with a final check for $5000 in May of this year. In a video announcing the fund, Parton said “we want to provide a hand up to all those families that have lost everything in the fires”.

It is clear that this charity was personal for Parton, but the impact of the money distributed could be a window into how a basic income of $1000 a month could help families across the country. In a new study out this month from the University of Tennessee, researchers devised a survey to gather information from participants in this unlikely pilot. What they found was that when asked what kind of support was most helpful in the wake of the fires, 11% of respondents said emotional support, 27% said item donations, and a strong majority of 62% said that the cash assistance they received from the fund was most helpful.

A staggering number of people did not have homeowners or renters insurance, nearly 40 percent, which meant that insurance wasn’t going to be putting them up at a motel. The financial impact of the fires stretched way beyond housing; most people reported having to take time away from work to arrange accommodations. Couple lost wages with the fact that 74 percent had out-of-pocket expenses related to the fire that were not covered by insurance, and you can start to see the full picture of just how dire the situation was for many of these families. What you can also see is that families in a situation like this have a diversity of needs that are hard to predict, making hard goods and services helpful, but not a one-size-fits-all solution.

In a recent interview, researcher Stacia West really showed the strength of cash assistance in the face of unforeseeable hardship, saying:

“The My People Fund, in tandem with traditional disaster response, allowed these families to make their own choices. This is powerful insight when it comes to quicker disaster relief and recovery. Ultimately, these individuals have lost time from work and income with no financial reserves. The bottom line? It may be more efficacious to provide cash.”

Often the argument for a basic income is tied to alleviating poverty or insuring against technological unemployment, but it could also play a role in cushioning against the effects of natural disasters. Parton clearly had both the heartstrings to her hometown and the means to provide considerable support, but the manner in which she provided that support could be a key lesson in how to revolutionize disaster relief.

Other organizations have already followed suit. Give Directly, known best for its work in Africa supplying cash transfers to those in extreme poverty, stepped into Houston after hurricane Harvey. Amidst the canned goods and clothing drives, Give Directly brought pre-paid debit cards for $1500 to hand out to families displaced by the storm. “You talk to each individual, and their needs are individual,” Give Directly founder Michael Faye told The Atlantic earlier this year, “It’s a place where things are destroyed and people need money to rebuild their lives.”

Whether it is a fire like the ones that hit California so hard this year, or one of the numerous hurricanes that hit North America which we are still recovering from, it is not a matter of if a natural disaster will strike, but when. In the absence of a generous country music legend, a basic income could provide the foundation we all might need to survive the brutal unpredictability of nature.