Will Hartford’s guaranteed income experiment reduce stress levels among participants? Researchers hoping to screen for stress hormones to find out

By Rebecca Lurye

Original article: https://www.courant.com/community/hartford/hc-news-hartford-universal-basic-income-recs-20211101-vxm7ydw23nd6jfovfnkjpfrra4-story.html

HARTFORD — A task force designing Hartford’s potential Universal Basic Income pilot program will recommend the city seek heaps of data from participating families — including hair or nail samples to track changes in their stress levels.

The group, which consists of a number of researchers, met virtually Thursday to discuss its draft recommendations for the guaranteed-income experiment, in which about 25 single parents or guardians would receive monthly, no-strings-attached payments of $500 for one year.

To understand the impact of that extra income, the task force envisions the city surveying and interviewing participants on a regular basis about their financial situations and their emotional and physical well-being. Because many of the questions will be subjective, the researchers think the city should push the envelope and take hair or fingernail samples and saliva or cheek swabs from participants to measure their levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The task force, which will submit its final recommendations to Hartford city council by the end of the year, emphasized that participants would not be required to participate in the surveys, interviews or biological testing. Those who do share the information — and samples, potentially — would be compensated for their time.

The pilot, if funded and approved, would begin in June 2022 and would add Hartford to a growing list of U.S. cities to test the concept of guaranteed income, which has mostly been tested in the short term and on a small scale.

Due to the limited research on UBI programs, Hartford’s task force is suggesting the city gather as much information as it can during its pilot program.

Members say they’re not aware of any other U.S. cities that have studied whether stress hormone levels drop over time when people receive extra monthly income.

“To our knowledge, if implemented, these measures of biological stress would be the first such measures studied in any U.S. UBI program,” said task force member Amanda Dettmer, an associate research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, a mental health clinic in New Haven.

While hair and saliva can both be screened for drugs, there would be multiple safeguards in place to ensure biological samples are only tested for cortisol, Dettmer said. It would be illegal for the samples collected in Hartford’s pilot program to be tested for drugs, she said.

In addition to voluntarily providing the samples every three months, participants would be asked to answer survey and interview questions about everything from employment changes and sleep quality to how their child is doing in school.

Once a month, families would also be asked to report their household needs and budget, and how they spent their UBI funds, which would likely take the form of debit cards. The monthly payments could be used for basic expenses like housing, food, transportation, medical care and education.

The group said it could take participants about 40 minutes to run through the larger battery of reports every three months.

One researcher suggested paying participants about $45 per hour, but encouraged community members to share their own recommendations for appropriate compensation.

The task force also wants to hear whether residents would want to receive financial and benefits counseling and wraparound services as part of the pilot program.

The task force has been meeting since April, after Hartford City Council formed the group to design a pilot guaranteed-income program targeting single, working parents.

The concept of guaranteed income has been gaining traction in the U.S. for 10 to 15 years, though few cities have had trial UBI programs, says Stephen Ross, a University of Connecticut economist and member of the Hartford UBI task force.

Last week, Los Angeles opened applications for what may be the largest UBI program in the U.S. so far. Around 3,000 families in poverty will receive $1,000 a month for a year, with no rules for how families spend the money. Chicago is also planning to use $35 million to test a UBI program for one year.

The most well-known UBI pilot, in Stockton, California, found that $500 monthly payments allowed participants to cut back on part-time or gig work in order to complete internships, training and coursework that improved their job prospects, leading to full-time work and promotions.

Hartford has found tentative private funding to provide 25 families with payments for one year, but the city is looking for more money to cover a larger group that’s more representative of the capital city, according to Grant, the task force chair.

Participants would be randomly selected from those who apply.

For now, the group plans to recommend limiting the program to single, Hartford residents who are U.S. citizens or green card holders, working at least part time, and are the primary caregiver to at least one child between third and eighth grade. They selected this age range in order to look at children’s standardized test scores.

Applicants could be a biological or adoptive parent, a grandparent raising a grandchild, or other type of legal custodian. The program would be open to caregivers of all income levels.

Researchers will recommend excluding residents who are not U.S. citizens or green card holders, and households receiving disability payments or paying or receiving child support, as the additional income could create legal issues.

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