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Can a universal basic income solve America’s baby bust?

(NewsNation) — Andrew Yang loves it. Elon Musk does, too. So do Alaskans.

Now babies may become its biggest fans.

It is the universal basic income: the concept of giving everyone a flat government payment every year.

A study recently published in the journal Social Forces looked at Alaska’s universal basic income: the Permanent Fund Dividend. Since 1982, the state of Alaska has used oil royalties to make investments and finance the fund.

The study found that these payments, once they reach a certain level, increase Alaska’s birth rate.

This is a new benefit in the debate over universal basic income at a time when Americans are having fewer children. Lower birth dates can slow economic growth. In 2020, the country’s fertility rate hit a record low. Births rose only slightly in 2021 after declining for seven years.

NewsNation interviewed Kiara Wyndham-Douds, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis who co-authored the study. The interview has been edited and paraphrased for length and clarity.

NewsNation: How did a universal basic income change how many Alaskans had children?

Wyndham-Douds: What we found essentially is that there is an increase in fertility one and two years after receiving a payment. The effect of giving people an average payment would have essentially increased the birthrate from 80 births per 1,000 people, women age 15 to 44, to 86.5. So that’s a pretty substantial increase.

NewsNation: How meaningful is that for the population of Alaska?

Wyndham-Douds: I think a useful framing would be to see it as an approximate 8% increase in the birth rate. That figure is using the 2010 demographic composition of Alaska, but 8% is certainly a meaningful increase when thinking about fertility.

NewsNation: How meaningful would it be if this program was put in place nationwide? What impact would it have?

Wyndham-Douds: We can’t say for sure based on our data and analysis how large an effect we’d see for the U.S. population as a whole. But the Alaska case suggests that a similar cash transfer program could increase birth rates through increasing reproductive autonomy (healthcare access, contraception and costs of childcare) if the barriers to reproductive autonomy in the full population are similar to those in Alaska.

NewsNation: Was it the same for all Alaskans no matter how much money they made?

Wyndham-Douds: The effects were largest for population groups that are socioeconomically disadvantaged. So we find that the increases are greatest for unmarried people, people without a high school education, and Alaska Native people.

NewsNation: So everyone has more children when they get a universal basic income?

Wyndham-Douds: We can’t actually say for sure that at the end of the day Alaskans are having in total more children than they otherwise would have. But what we can say for sure is the transfers at least accelerate entrance into parenthood if not eventually increase the total number of births that people are having.

A sign at a used car lot in Anchorage, Alaska, on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009, encourages buyers to use their Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend check early for their purchase. (AP Photo/Al Grillo)

NewsNation: One of the critiques of these programs is that people are going to want to have more kids so they can get more payments. In Alaska, you get more money from its fund based on the number of people in your home. Is it a valid concern that people might try to take advantage of this kind of system?

Wyndham-Douds: I think that the way that we need to think about social policy can’t really be found in limiting people’s reproductive autonomy. The solution to poverty is never going to be stopping poor people from having children. The solution to poverty has to be enabling people to live healthy lives and to fulfill their goals which may or may not include having more children.

NewsNation: Did this change the abortion rate? Abortion is legal in Alaska, though the rate is much lower than the national average and even that rate may be from people from other places coming to Alaska for an abortion.

Wyndham-Douds: We could easily theorize that this cash transfer could enable someone who has an unwanted pregnancy to end it. But in Alaska we found no effect on the abortion rate.

NewsNation: Why is that?

Wyndham-Douds: It’s possible for some population groups that there is an effect on the abortion rate but we can’t pick it up with the available data. The other thing that’s really important about Alaska is that throughout our study period — from the 1980s up until 2010 — Medicaid actually covered abortion in the state.

We often think about the ability to pay for abortion as a really critical element of access. In Alaska, that might not be as much the case. So if Medicaid hadn’t paid for abortion would we expect a universal basic income would have an effect on abortion? Possibly.

NewsNation: Do you think the research is still true or relevant today in 2022, given that the period you examined ended in 2010?

Wyndham-Douds: Barriers to reproductive autonomy present in Alaska during our study period are still barriers people face today. Given this, there’s no reason to believe that cash transfers today would not have similar, though potentially different in magnitude, effects.