California Shows Us What a National Guaranteed Income Could Be

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Oct. 19, 2021

All around the United States, guaranteed income programs are taking shape as American cities are taking the safety net more seriously than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exposed just how dire this need is — how many Americans are on the brink of experiencing poverty and losing the resources necessary to weather emergencies.

Guaranteed income is similar to universal basic income, but guaranteed income is a cash transfer policy aimed at creating financial security for all families by giving cash, no strings attached, directly to those who need it.

Recently, Pittsburgh announced its $2.5 million guaranteed income pilot, which would provide $500 a month to 200 low-income households, particularly households led by Black women. This pilot is one of many led by mayors in cities across the nation, and will add to the growing number of families positively affected by this policy. But go further west and we see how these guaranteed income programs are not just limited to cities and can take shape throughout an entire state — California.

Cash payments for those in need might seem like a simple and direct policy, but many experts have argued for and against guaranteed income, as well as opportunities for its growth. California in particular has led efforts to develop guaranteed income policies even before the COVID-19 pandemic drove up public interest and political will for revamping the safety net. Many of the founding members of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income are leading pilots across California, and with bipartisan support. Unanimously approved, California set aside $35 million for the first state-wide guaranteed income program. California’s efforts on guaranteed income provide invaluable insight for future guaranteed income projects elsewhere in the country:

To reduce the potential for cultural stigma, partner with the community to share real stories of the ways guaranteed income affects families.

While there may be enough political will to fund a guaranteed income pilot, cultural stigma around accessing public support can still exist within a community. Narratives have the power to connect people and build understanding. In Stockton’s guaranteed income pilot, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) underscored the importance of creating rigorous quantitative data collection, but also pairing that with qualitative storytelling that shows the depth of the impact throughout recipients lives.

In a conversation New America CA hosted with mayors piloting guaranteed income programs, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf detailed the value of narrative work and data to inform public views. “The Stockton demonstration did a great job of debunking this myth that if you give people money, they won't work. One of the most powerful pieces of data that came out of Stockton, was that if you give people money, they are actually twice as likely to become fully employed,” she said.

Several guaranteed income pilots, like Santa Clara county’s program for young adults transitioning out of the foster system, have shown that connecting community members together through story can help debunk myths around who deserves cash and give insight to how people use it to create stability and better their lives. Since politics and culture sometimes move at different speeds, effective guaranteed income programs can diffuse this tension by bringing people together to share their experiences with public systems and the potential they see for access to guaranteed income to transform their lives.

Alleviating poverty will take a significantly larger investment than what has been budgeted for these pilots.

Address widespread mistrust in public systems.

Communities’ mistrust in public systems is rooted in years of systemic exclusion from welfare policy and systems that were shaped by racism, causing low public trust in the government. Some guaranteed income programs, for example Oakland’s pilot, target racial wealth inequality by building on the concept of reparations to make amends for the impact of slavery and racist systemic exclusion.

Even as these programs focus on minimizing income and race inequality, the marginalized communities they are working for still have negative perceptions of receiving public support. Mekie, a SEED participant and a mother of six, articulated her community’s opinion about receiving public support. “I'm their mom, I'm supposed to take care of them. So asking for help from somebody… it's just embarrassing,” she said. “I don't want nobody to know, because when I was on Facebook, when they were first starting this [guaranteed income] program, people were just horrible about this program.” Many marginalized communities have negative opinions and/or experiences interacting with government systems, and policymakers must work toward building trust and transparency.

Fortunately, researchers have found some ways to build community trust and address misinformation. Some of these ways include creating transparent, well-documented research and consent processes, keeping participant data private, and preventing benefits loss in case participants rely on other forms of public assistance. Another pilot, The Compton Pledge, emphasizes the importance of participants having a clear understanding of what level of anonymity they may or may not have, and works to keep participant data anonymous. The Compton Pledge amplifies the voices of cash recipients not only by sharing narratives, but by incorporating community and recipient feedback into the program, a process that helps ensure policies serving the community come from the community.

Move away from pilots and toward sustainable policy pathways.

Those experiencing poverty in the United States need a better solution than temporary pilots. Guaranteed income could potentially reduce poverty and improve the long-term well-being of families, and the current social safety net doesn’t do enough to help lift people out of poverty and build an economic foundation. While some may perceive cash assistance as unfair or an expensive policy that might disincentivize employment, the reality is that costs of living are rising while wage gains remain stagnant and often people have no choice but to make financial trade-offs between work, family, leisure, and health. The policy building conversation must move from why we must reimagine the safety net to how. All things considered, alleviating poverty will take a significantly larger investment than what has been budgeted for these pilots.

Whether to replace or repair the safety net remains a central question to researchers considering long-term policy pathways for guaranteed income. However, regardless of the extent and scope of guaranteed income, gathering more information on scaling the policy will be crucial to moving from short-term experiments to long-lasting life-changing policies. At the federal level, expansions to the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the pandemic-related stimulus checks have shown the potential positive impact that cash assistance could have on working families. Local level demonstrations also have the power to inform federal policy-making, according to Mayor Schaaf, “Demonstrations in cities like ours are going to show that investing in people's health and well-being and stability is the best investment we can make not just morally, which is first and foremost, but actually financially.”

Ensuring Financial Stability

With change comes growing pains, but renewing the safety net with equitable policies that efficiently reach the people who need it would be worth the work and investment over time. Whether the public moves toward guaranteed income or whether policymakers build a more robust safety net in other ways, it will be critical to involve the community voice, build trust, and find sustainable solutions. These guaranteed income pilots across the United States have provided plenty of evidence for how local governments, and potentially the federal government, could take a different approach to ending poverty. Monthly cash payments might allow people not only the financial resources necessary to find that next job, but also the flexibility, stability, and time to celebrate and enjoy life.

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Guaranteed Income and the Safety Net (New America CA, 2021): No matter where one falls on the questions of politics, impact, or deservedness around guaranteed income, the reality is that universal basic income and cash transfer movements continue to grow. So we examine the ways guaranteed income can be implemented, and its relationship to other social safety net policies.

Exploring SEED: A Guaranteed Income Demonstration’s Health Equity Implications (New America CA, 2021): The Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) is also the first mayor-led guaranteed income initiative. SEED is an example of how cash payments can affect individual, family, and community health and well-being, and we explore how individual cash payments both mitigate and highlight systemic barriers recipients face in their pursuit of health and well-being.

Guaranteed Income and Health Equity (New America CA, 2021): Recurring and unconditional cash payment programs have captured the imagination of local leaders across the country as a potential means of combating some of the most acute problems faced by Americans and their families. And guaranteed income can be a promising tool for democratizing access to mental and physical health.

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