How My Experience On Disability Made Me A Basic Income Believer

I left Miami, where I had spent five years working first for the Obama Campaign and then running a record label that supported my music, in 2012 after a suicide attempt. I was hospitalized several times and had to quit my part time job as a sushi chef and stop making/performing music. I had been diagnosed Bipolar in 2007 when in a manic episode I briefly via email harassed a friend and was arrested. I moved to Miami from Boston with the intention of launching a record label while dealing with the new diagnosis and trying to manage my situation with medication. My commitment to my medication wavered as those five years progressed, with me often not taking them as I chased the mania that I believed helped me rise to prominence as a musician in Miami. My background is not in music, but in a short time I became one of the most popular acts in South Florida. But, this story is not about my music. This is about how a basic income helped me survive after the suicide attempt and helped me get back on a path to live my best life.

First some background: I left Washington, DC to study in Boston, first at Tufts University and then at Harvard’s Kennedy School. In between I helped launch a nonprofit called United Leaders that trained millennials to run for public office. I was on a path to run for public office in Boston myself as I took a job working at a top consulting firm. But, as I went to work at the firm my brother asked me to help him launch a record label in South Florida. He was a producer and I had been visiting him there making music together. I have always loved music, from my first Michael Jackson song to my first Run DMC record. So, when the chance came to pursue a smaller dream I’ve always had, I took a leap of faith and left my career behind.

After my suicide attempt, during one of my hospitalizations, my mom suggested that I apply for disability. I could not work a regular job at that time as I was in and out of the hospital, etc. So, I applied and was accepted. Since then I have received a monthly disability check drawn down from money that I paid in taxes at roughly a level that I’ve heard many universal basic income pilot programs are trying. I spent four years on disability focusing on self-care here in the Atlanta area with my family. But, two years ago I put myself on the path for a comeback that would not have been possible without my disability check. And, this is why I believe every citizen should have access to a basic income.

Friedrich Hayek argued about basic income that a guaranteed minimum floor above poverty is necessary to protect the individual from coercion by the state, etc. And, while I lived primarily on disability I felt free to pursue what I was passionate about- first self-care as I managed my disability and then later through work that in most cases did not offer pay. I started writing for HuffPost as an unpaid contributor. I relaunched my music career here in Atlanta and now have two booked shows. I looked for my own apartment and now am moving into a great neighborhood in Atlanta. And, I looked for steady work at my own pace and found a job working in an area where I have passion, turning down opportunities that I did not have passion for or thought were bad work. And, the entire time I knew I could count on my disability which helped give me the freedom to pursue good opportunities.

Martin Luther King also argued for a basic income and from a similar perspective. The crux of King’s argument was that knowing what we know about how the economy works, it is imperative that the government abolish poverty and find new job opportunities for people struggling. Think about King’s argument this way: It is not a lack of education or motivation that kept me from working. I needed time to manage my mental health. And, then I needed the ability to find my way back into work. So, I used my guaranteed income to create my own economy, building on tools I had at my disposal. And, indeed, outside of my own experience what was found in a 2011 pilot of basic income by UNICEF in India is that when given a basic income recipients did not curtail working hours. Instead, they invested in new businesses, improved their homes and/or bought tools to help them with their job.

To be clear, disability is not the same as universal basic income. I had to qualify for disability, which I was “lucky” to do. But, shouldn’t the freedom I had to pursue self-care and passion work be available to every citizen? Think about how this would reshape the economy. First, we could eliminate poverty. Second, we could give opportunity to motivated people to launch small businesses, spend money, take passion work and/or improve their living situation. As automation creeps and the traditional economy continues to leave many behind, we must consider ways to directly improve conditions for all Americans. My experience on disability made me realize that you should not have to be lucky to have the freedom to work where you want, at your own pace and when you want. This is a freedom that we all should have.

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