Basic income for social, economic justice: Michael Tubbs and Holly Mitchell

While it’s promising to see our recovery in progress, we must reckon with the fact that our society functioning as normal simply wasn’t working for a huge amount of the population.


We are at a promising, but fragile, time in our history. We’ve just experienced the utter devastation of a pandemic that took lives, jobs, security and hard-fought gains for millions. Detailing the losses would take all the pages of this paper. Yet, these cracks are beginning to be illuminated with light. With California’s economy today joining many across the country officially open for business, there are semblances of a country returning to “normal.”

While it’s promising to see our recovery in progress, we must reckon with the fact that our society functioning as normal simply wasn’t working for a huge amount of the population.

For Black and Brown Americans, normal has never worked. Even before the pandemic, we had soaring inequality. The average White family had 10 times the wealth of a Black family. In Los Angeles, the numbers are even more staggering: Black and Mexican-origin families hold 1/90th the wealth of their White counterparts.

As we grapple with the dual crises of financial havoc and racial injustice, we must center and prioritize solutions that address both.

That’s why we are working on the country’s largest county-run guaranteed income program. Guaranteed income, a cash supplement provided to poor and middle-class Americans, is a concept with a long history of supporters, particularly in racial justice movements.

From the NWRO’s Johnnie Tillmon to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Black Panthers – all saw the promise of unrestricted cash payments to directly solve the scourge of poverty and finally close the racial income gap our nation has allowed for far too long.

This idea has been tested at a smaller scale with extremely promising results – first-year data from Stockton’s SEED program distributing a guaranteed income of $500 a month for 24 months to 125 residents found the economic stability provided by the payments helped recipients find full-time employment at more than twice the rate of non-recipients. People were healthier, happier and financially stronger. You’d be hard pressed to come up with a think tank policy or government-subsidized training program with more potential.

In Los Angeles, we’ll show how to scale this program both in size and funding.

The Board of Supervisors recently passed a countywide Poverty Alleviation Policy Agenda, including the establishment of a guaranteed income program that will provide a minimum of 1,000 residents $1,000 monthly for three years. This builds on the efforts of other cities in the county including Compton, Long Beach and Santa Monica; combined we’ll serve more than 4,000 recipients. This, along with equity-based city and county budgeting, could change disparity outcomes for even more Angelenos by getting resources to those with the greatest need.

In addition to its historic size, our efforts in Los Angeles County also stand out for their use of public dollars. The vast majority of recent guaranteed income programs have been philanthropically funded, a necessary way to try out big ideas – but ultimately unsustainable at a widespread level. Under the leadership of Mayor Eric Garcetti, the City of Los Angeles will break from a traditional budget approach focused on plugging short-term holes to a “justice budget” – directing municipal dollars toward projects that advance a long-term goal of building a more equitable city. Pilots across the county will be fully funded by $40 million in public dollars, a first in the country. We’ll also be aided by Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement of $35 million in matching funds for guaranteed income pilots – making California the first state to put money toward guaranteed income pilots.

Between our local and state efforts to establish cash-based policies, California is serving as a model for other states to follow, as well as the federal government.

The reason cash works is simple: when the problem is that people don’t have enough money, the most direct and effective way to solve it is to give them more of it. This has a cascading effect, not just meeting the immediate issue of a lack of funds, but unlocking the invaluable benefits that come along with economic security. The ability to quit the rideshare night-shift after already working a full-time job during the day. Knowing that if your child gets sick, you won’t have to decide between taking a day off work or paying the rent.

Too many of our country’s social support programs are overly complex and bureaucratic, assuming the underlying issue behind economic precarity is “fixing” the individual rather than the system that allowed widespread poverty and inequality in the first place. Cash shifts the approach from one-size-fits-all to a recognition that people are the best experts on their own needs.

We don’t put restrictions on the way corporations spend the guaranteed income they receive through massive tax breaks and government incentives, so why have we allowed a half century of safety net policy built around the idea that Americans cannot be trusted with money?

We are beginning to emerge from the triage-mode of the last year, and into a period that will ultimately be just as important – the ways in which we rebuild our economy, including the things we leave behind in favor of a different kind of world. One in which millions of our friends and neighbors do not go hungry. One in which a Black Angeleno has the same shot at building wealth as their White colleague. One in which, for the very first time in our country’s history, we are truly a nation where everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive.


About the Authors:

Michael Tubbs is the former mayor of Stockton and founder of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. Holly Mitchell serves on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

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