Australian $100 note and dollar sign money clip.

Photo: Fairfax Photographic

In May 2009, a small experiment involving 13 homeless men began in London. Some of the men had slept in the cold for more than 40 years. The presence of these street veterans was far from cheap. Police, legal services, healthcare: each cost taxpayers thousands of pounds every year.

That spring, a local charity decided to make the street veterans - sometimes called rough sleepers - the beneficiaries of an innovative social experiment. No more food stamps, food-kitchen meals or sporadic stays in shelters. The 13 would get a drastic bailout, financed by taxpayers. Each would receive £3000 in cash, with no strings attached. The men were free to decide how to spend it.

There was only one question they had to answer: what do you think is good for you?

<i>Illustration:</i> Andrew Dyson

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

''I didn't have enormous expectations,'' an aid worker recalled a ear later. Yet the men's desires were quite modest. A phone, a passport, a dictionary - each participant had ideas about what would be best for him. None of the men wasted his money on alcohol, drugs or gambling. A year later, 11 of the 13 had roofs over their heads. (Some went to hostels, others to shelters.) They enrolled in classes, learnt how to cook, sought treatment for drug abuse and made plans for the future. After decades of authorities' fruitless pushing, pulling, fines and persecution, 11 vagrants moved off the streets.

The cost? About £50,000, including the wages of the aid workers. As well as giving 11 individuals another shot at life, the project had saved money by a factor of multiples. Even The Economist concluded: ''The most efficient way to spend money on the homeless might be to give it to them''.

What if this pilot program has broader implications? Societies tend to presume that poor people are unable to handle money. If they had any, people reason, the poor and homeless would probably spend it on fast food and cheap liquor, not on fruit or education. This kind of reasoning nourishes the myriad ingenious social programs, administrative jungles, armies of program co-ordinators and legions of supervising staff that make up the modern welfare state.

We like to think that people have to work for their money. In recent decades, social welfare has become geared towards a labour market that does not create enough jobs. The trend from ''welfare'' to ''workfare'' is international, with obligatory job applications, reintegration trajectories, mandatory participation in ''voluntary'' work. The underlying message: free money makes people lazy.

Except that it doesn't.

In recent years, numerous studies of development aid have found impressive correlations between free money and reductions in crime, inequality, malnutrition, infant mortality, teenage pregnancy rates and truancy. It is also correlated with better school completion rates, higher economic growth and improvement in conditions for women.

''The big reason poor people are poor is because they don't have enough money,'' economist Charles Kenny, a fellow at the Washington-based Centre for Global Development, wrote in June.

''It shouldn't come as a huge surprise that giving them money is a great way to reduce that problem.''

In the 2010 report 'Just Give Money to the Poor, researchers from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development give numerous examples of money being scattered successfully. In Namibia, malnourishment, crime and truancy fell 25 per cent, 42 per cent and nearly 40 per cent respectively after grants were given. In Malawi, school enrolment of girls and women rose 40 per cent in settings where money was given with or without conditions on its use. From Brazil to India and from Mexico to South Africa, free-money programs have flourished in the past decade. More than 110 million families in at least 45 countries benefit from them.

It is time to apply these lessons to rich but increasingly unequal societies. A world where wages no longer rise still needs consumers. Middle-class purchasing power has been maintained through loans, loans and more loans. The Calvinistic reflex that you have to work for your money has turned into a licence for inequality.

Legend has it that while Henry Ford II was giving a tour around a new, highly automated factory to union leader Walter Reuther in the 1960s, Ford joked: ''Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues?''

Reuther reportedly said: ''Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?''

No one is suggesting societies the world over should implement an expensive basic income system in one stroke. Each utopia needs to start small, with experiments that slowly turn our world upside down - like the one in 2009 in London. As one of the aid workers recalled: ''It's quite hard to just change overnight the way you've always approached this problem. These pilots give us the opportunity to talk differently, think differently, describe the problem differently.''

That is how all progress begins.

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Rutger Bregman is a reporter with the Dutch-language online outlet De Correspondent. Twitter: @rcbregman.