As some San Francisco artists get basic income, how do we head off bad-faith arguments against it?

Poltergeist Theatre Project’s “The Julie Cycle” creators and actors Britt Lauer (left) and Chris Steele on in San Francisco. Photo: Paul Kuroda, Special to The Chronicle 2019

Guaranteed income programs, no matter whom they support, must frequently battle the same zombie ideas.

By Lily Janiak

When the city announced last month that it planned to launch a pilot program to give more than 100 artists $1,000 monthly payments for six months, my hope for all the performers I write about and love was tinged with worry. I frequently see a couple of bad-faith arguments in response to the idea of state support of the arts, and I didn’t want them to hijack the conversation about a promising idea:

  • Bad-faith argument No. 1: Artists’ work isn’t real work, and if they can’t support themselves in the market, their art must be mere hobby.
  • Bad-faith argument No. 2: If the city is sending unrestricted cash to artists, could any Joe Schmoe throw some finger painting together and become eligible?

The latter is further complicated by the idea that I want Joe Schmoes to have all the access to finger painting that their little fingertips desire; that I believe in all the Joe Schmoes’ potential to, one day, get so good at finger painting as to change the world with it, or at least change their own lives. My challenge, then, is to hold and articulate simultaneously two ideas that can seem contradictory:

Everyone should have access to the arts as leisure, and some professional artists merit public funds for their art as work.

Dorian T. Warren, an expert on guaranteed income, says the concept faces bad zombie arguments that won’t die.
Photo: Community Change,

When I shared my concerns with guaranteed income expert Dorian T. Warren, he reminded me of a felicitous phrase from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman: zombie ideas. These are bad arguments that just won’t die, no matter how much data disproves them.

“They’re not grounded in evidence,” says Warren, the president of Community Change and co-chair of the Economic Security Project, both nonprofits, and co-host of the podcast “System Check.”

“They’re grounded in mythology.”

Guaranteed income programs, no matter whom they support, must frequently battle the same zombie ideas. Warren trots them out with a sigh: “It’s going to make people lazy. They’re not going to want to work. They’ll spend it on drugs and alcohol.” All stem from centuries-old prejudices that the poor are poor by choice or moral failing, and that they won’t work jobs unless you punish or force them. Those prejudices mix with racial and gender bias, hence the persistent myth of “the welfare queen,” he adds.

“It really goes to core distinctions of who is deserving and who is undeserving of support, particularly support of the government, and that is related to fundamental notions of who belongs and who doesn’t,” he says.

“Do we think you belong in this political community we call the United States of America? If you don’t, you don’t deserve what the rest of us, who do belong, get.”

That notion of belonging also applies to artists, whom our country frequently demonizes as some kind of “other.” It’s a lot easier to say someone doesn’t deserve to have their basic needs met if you make them out to be fundamentally different from you. It’s a lot easier to say artists don’t deserve a living wage for the TV shows you watch, and the music you listen to, if you write them off as weird or deviant.

Lorrine Paradela, a single mother of two, is one of 125 Stockton residents receiving monthly cash disbursements, with no strings attached, as part of an attention-grabbing experiment on guaranteed income.
Photo: Yalonda M. James, The Chronicle 2019

Data from a slew of guaranteed income pilot projects across the country might help weaken, if not defeat, some of these zombie ideas. In addition to San Francisco’s program for artists, Oakland and Marin County both recently announced their own programs for people of color, and in 2019, the city of Stockton launched the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, a guaranteed income program for 125 city residents.

In Stockton, preliminary results released in March show that not only are these zombie ideas wrong; at times, they’re backward. For instance, guaranteed income recipients were twice as likely to gain full-time employment as a control group, says Sukhi Samra, the director of SEED as well as the director of a new group, Mayors for a Guaranteed Income.

She attributes that finding to two factors: “When you give people $400 or $500 a month, and it’s reliable, not only are they able to do the tangible, physical things, like put gas in their car to get to the job interview, but they also have increased mental capacity for goal-setting,” she says. “When you’re experiencing poverty, and each paycheck’s dollar is accounted for in terms of which bills it’s going to pay, you just don’t have the mental capacity to plan for your future.”

Take all the time our artists spend on hold with the unemployment office, all the brain space they exhaust checking their bank account to make sure they don’t overdraft between freelance payments, all the bureaucratic hoops they jump through to make sure they have health insurance between gigs. Why, in the richest country in the world, do we demand artists waste so many of their resources? What if they could instead spend that time and energy composing a new symphony? Or dreaming up a new artistic form altogether?

Chris Steele in Cutting Ball Theater’s “Utopia.” Steele is among those applying for San Francisco’s guaranteed income program.
Photo: Nic Candito, Cutting Ball Theater

In Bay Area theater, even artists at the pinnacles of their careers make minimum wage or less. For many, $1,000 per month would help to remove food and housing insecurity. Preliminary data from SEED shows that program recipients experienced not just less psychological difficulty, but less physical pain than a control group.

San Francisco theater maker, drag queen, makeup artist and Poltergeist Theatre Project co-founder Chris Steele is applying to the city’s guaranteed income program partly for those reasons.

“All of the times that I haven’t been able to rise to the occasion of my art have come from the fact that I have to do so many exhausting things in order to just have a roof and food and be able to live,” Steele says.

“That kind of stress, that kind of constant anxiety not only changes your DNA, but it is just antithetical to the spiritual and mental place that you need to be in to create art.”

Poltergeist Theatre Project’s “The Julie Cycle” creators and actors Britt Lauer (left) and Chris Steele in San Francisco.
Photo: Paul Kuroda, Special to The Chronicle 2019

Guaranteed income is different from other social safety net programs in that there are no strings attached. Once you’re enrolled, you don’t have to prove anything to keep it and you can spend the money however you want. In Stockton, Samra says, recipients spent their funds on groceries, rent and utilities.

The concept is built on trust, Warren says. We don’t demand corporations spend their subsidies or tax breaks in a particular way, so why do we treat the poor differently?

“That means you don’t trust me,” he says, putting himself in the place of a welfare recipient, “and that means you don’t respect me, and that means I have no dignity.”

Distrust comes from a scarcity mind-set, a sense that resources are scarce and we’re all competing with one another. And who is it that helps us shift to an abundance mind-set? To see the world as full of wonder and possibility and joy?

It’s artists. What a coincidence.


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