Man on dock in despair
Photo by Bruno Aguirre on Unsplash

A Universal Basic Income (UBI) could improve the lives of many at-risk workers in midlife. But most of the discussion has focused primarily on economics. Funding receives most of the attention.

The debate centers on whether the government will realize cost savings by eliminating entitlement programs. There is ongoing disagreement whether inflation will offset personal income realized by a UBI.

How will a UBI impact mental health for Americans in midlife?  Those at risk are older workers who are the most vulnerable to changes in the job market.

We certainly don’t include the mental health impact with a UBI when calculating cost savings.

Perhaps we should.

Depression in Midlife

A study by Columbia University of over 9,000 individuals over age 50 found that major depression was more persistent and disabling in older adults. It was also more common for those at socioeconomic disadvantages.

Women ages 40 to 59 had the highest rates of depression, with one in eight meeting the criteria.

One fact from the report was that rates of depression increased as individuals aged — until they hit near retirement. Also, people living below the federal poverty level were more than twice as likely to have depression.

Studies point to economic factors as crucial to our mental health. A meta-analysis of 485 studies by researchers at the University of Manchester found that a lack of job satisfaction was associated with psychological problems that heightened feelings of burnout, lack of self-esteem, depression and anxiety.

UBI and Midlife Joblessness

It should come as no surprise that workplace stress is a significant factor in developing mental illness later in life. Researchers found those with higher job demands, lower job control and higher job strain were at the greatest risk to develop mental health problems by age 50.

The struggle to remain employed may be a factor. The Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) reports that the unemployment rate for those over 55 is at 12%. This translates into 12.5 million Midlife Americans unable to find a job.

While midlife is a peak time for depression, it is also when workers are likely to experience much longer periods of joblessness. Evidence  shows age discrimination is a contributing factor in remaining unemployed. Economists at the University of California at Irvine and Tulane University documented what many middle aged workers know to be true. Work is difficult to find in midlife. Strong evidence suggests age discrimination in hiring, particularly for older women. In one study, job hunters age 49-51 had a job callback rate 29% lower than their younger counterparts.

Unemployment leads to an increased risk for suicide. According to economist Richard Dunn of Texas A&M University, money is at the heart of the issue. The loss of unemployment benefits is a significantly greater risk factor for suicide than the initial loss of a job, according to Dunn.

It may be worth noting that most states offer 26 weeks of benefits, with Massachusetts providing up to 30. Herein lies the problem. AARP reports the average duration of joblessness for workers age 55-64 is 39.5 weeks. The retirement organization found that 32.5% of unemployed workers over 55 will be jobless longer than the average duration of their benefit period.

The Cost of a Midlife UBI

The estimated cost of a $1,000 a month UBI is $539 billion or  25% of the cost of current U.S. entitlement spending. But what we don’t take into account are savings from other “hidden” costs of our current unworkable system.

There is little data on the indirect costs of depression in midlife. We don’t know the economic impact of caregiving. We don’t have figures on increased demands on the healthcare system.

The direct cost of depression is estimated at $210.5 billion, according to a report published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, a portion of which should be calculated into the savings from a UBI.

Additionally, suicides should be considered. According to the National Institutes of Health, when adjusted for underreporting, suicides cost $93.5 billion. And the problem has grown 33% since 1999.

While a UBI certainly won’t prevent all mental illness or suicides, it would go a long way toward improving mental health. It could bridge the gap in unemployment benefits for middle-aged workers when the risk is highest for developing mental illness and committing suicide.

A UBI may not only save money, but lives.

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Shelly Fagan

Shelly Fagan is a freelance writer living in Arizona. She is passionate about American politics, business, universal basic income and worker rights. Follow her on Twitter @FaganWrites or on Medium at https://medium.com/@shellyfaganaz

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