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For Want of a Dollar

Scott Santens
Scott Santens
4 min read
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For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

For those unfamiliar, the above proverb describes the massive consequences that can result from seemingly unimportant items or lack thereof.

I now wish to fashion a new variation of this proverb...

For want of a dollar the bus ride was lost. For want of a bus ride the job was lost. For want of a job the paycheck was lost. For want of a paycheck the housing was lost. For want of housing the health was lost. For want of health the lawfulness was lost. For want of  lawfulness social cohesion was lost. For want of social cohesion democracy was lost. For want of democracy the nation was lost. And all for the want of a goddamn dollar.

Not having a single dollar can lead to hugely expensive consequences, and this isn't only a theoretical. It happens every day. Think about a recent time where not having enough money to afford something seemingly small, ended up costing you or others way more. Or from the other side of things, can you think of a time where having just enough money saved you from something that could have been potentially disastrous?

Not having enough money is expensive, and not just to the person in need, but everyone. For example, all over the US, there are people in jail simply because they can't afford not to be. According to a study by the Vera Institute of Justice, 730,000 people around the US are locked up in jails right now, 75% of whom are nonviolent, presumed innocent, and simply awaiting trials. Many of these people are there simply because they can't afford to pay bail or court-imposed fines. The total cost to taxpayers is $22 billion per year.

If we look at just the New York City jail system alone, about a third of the non-felony defendants are in jail because they don't have $500. How much does it cost the taxpayer to keep someone in jail for not having $500? The cost to jail someone in NYC is $167,731 per year (or $459.54 per day). In other words, taxpayers are paying about $500 every day to keep someone behind bars for not having $500 period.

We see the same kind of extreme wastefulness in the US healthcare system where someone without the $100 required to treat a boil ends up in the ER where they instead end up receiving $90,000 in emergency treatment. Who pays for that? Not them. Instead we all do in the form of higher taxes and insurance premiums.

Put all of this together and we can imagine someone who is $100 short, who then falls behind on their bills, gets their car repossessed, loses their job, gets sick, ends up in prison, gets out and earns 11% less than they otherwise would have for the rest of their lives, and thus pays less in taxes for the rest of their lives. By the time of death, which is most likely years before they otherwise would have died if they'd had money when they needed it, the total cost can be millions of dollars that otherwise would have never been spent, for want of just $100.

"A stitch in time saves nine."

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

We've all heard these sayings before, but we're terrible at applying them to government policy. Just think of all the money being spent that would not be spent if we just made sure that everyone started each month with an unconditional basic income of $1,000. How many people would not end up in jail? How many people would not end up in hospitals? How many people would not be dying before their time? How many people wouldn't drop out of school, or eat so much junk food, or get obese, or hurt other people?

Does it make any sense whatsoever to refuse to give someone $12,000 while simultaneously being okay with spending $90,000 to keep that person in prison, or $900,000 to treat that person in a hospital?

We can go on ignoring the lesson of the horseshoe nail, or we can realize the good sense in making sure everyone has enough money so that the entire kingdom isn't lost.

Which do you think makes more sense?


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Unconditional basic income (UBI) advocate with a crowdfunded basic income; Author of Let There Be Money; Senior Advisor to Humanity Forward; BasicIncomeToday.com editor; Fund for Humanity board member