How student research informed the basic income project

Sep 20, 2022
Michael Berger Headshot
Michael Berger

As planning for the Central Iowa Basic Income Pilot Project evolved, Mid-Iowa Health Foundation wanted to intentionally consider how the project should be implemented in central Iowa. Michael Berger, a Master’s in Public Health student at the University of Iowa, conducted additional research as part of his practicum to graduate. Through a literature review of other basic income (or guaranteed income) projects across the nation and by talking with community-based partners, he uncovered recommendations that are now informing how the project is unfolding in the region.

Here are insights he gained through this process that can inform other projects as they are being developed:

A literature review examined options for project models and outcomes.

By researching existing basic income projects, Berger captured information about how models are set up, including funding, partners engaged, eligibility criteria, implementation period, and payment structures. This research showed several options for how to set up these models, with many projects targeting different groups, such as single mothers with young children or individuals who are homeless.

While published research is limited as many basic income projects are still being implemented, Berger also studied findings from a handful of projects that showed how people used the monthly income they received and the impact it had on their health and well-being. The data showed that most people spent their monthly stipend on housing, food, paying bills, health care, and childcare. Data also showed that those who received a basic income had positive outcomes in physical and mental health, housing conditions, employment, food security, and child development. These findings have helped project organizers gain buy-in with funders and community stakeholders.

Reading for themes uncovered additional insights.

Beyond identifying key data points, Berger spent time reading participant perspectives and other narratives in the research reports to find themes. This qualitative analysis allowed him to pick up important aspects of these kinds of projects.

For example, Berger found that having a basic income allowed some participants to “pay it forward” by doing something good for a family member, a friend, or their neighborhood. In one case, a participant even donated to the organization implementing the basic income project because they wanted to support the work. This demonstrated how having enough money to cover essential needs, including the potential to save some money, allows people to participate in and contribute to their community more fully. Similarly, participants were able to engage in quality-of-life activities, like purchasing an audio book or going to the movies with their family.

“These are the little things that make life worth living,” Berger said. “This isn’t something I would have thought of, but they are just as important as someone getting groceries. It adds that human aspect.”

Another theme was how the project coordination teams had to have flexibility in working with participants to help problem solve and meet individualized needs. “The individuals participating are not test subjects,” Berger said. “They have wants and needs and you need to demonstrate that you care about them, and you are not pressuring them to do anything.”

Interviewing community organizations elevated aspects important for local implementation.

Berger then interviewed nine representatives from community organizations in Polk, Warren, and Dallas Counties to inform how the basic income model should look for central Iowa. These interviews provided insight into various populations to be reached with recruitment, what resources community organizations would need to participate, what recruitment and participation barriers might exist, and ideas for overcoming those barriers.

While each interview provided a variety of insights among organizations that serve different populations, the information helped project planners see opportunities for how to work with the community to make the project more successful. For example, participant trust was a huge concern, highlighting a need to work collaboratively with organizations that already have relationships with individuals in the community.  

The interviews helped Berger see “how it all fits together to make the project something the community is proud of and works on as a whole rather than a couple of organizations doing most of the work.”

Research was applied to structure the project.

Based on findings, project organizers made changes to the project design. One change was to have two project coordinators instead of one, recognizing the hands-on work needed to ensure the project meets participants’ needs and to provide strong communication to the community. Research also informed how participants will be recruited, including the importance of translating information into several languages, and training needed for community partners with resources for participant engagement efforts.

Inspiring Public Health Work

Before this summer, Berger had not heard about basic income projects, but after his research, he’s seen how critical the approach is to public health. Social and economic factors and physical environment influence 50 percent of health outcomes, according to the County Health Rankings model.

“The model allows people to have the freedom to make choices for themselves,” Berger said, which gives them access to essential needs when they otherwise might be shut out of social support services. “Rather than band aid solutions that some programs provide, we need to think bigger and broader if we want any change to happen,” he said.

One lesson that’s stayed with Berger is the importance of reaching out to people at the start of a project to build connections and learn. He’s found people willing to meet and collaborate, providing strengths to a project.

“Everyone benefits from this kind of research,” he said, recalling what he’s learned from working with Dr. Nalo Johnson of the Foundation. “It doesn’t have to be from a university or college that does it with professors. There’s a lot to learn from research for organizations, nonprofits, and all sectors of public health.”

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