Eighteen-month basic income pilot for 600 people of color to be launched in Oakland, California

Oakland is launching a basic universal income program for hundreds of residents — one of the largest such programs in the country. Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

By Sarah Ravani

Oakland plans to start a guaranteed income program this spring for 600 residents — one of the largest such programs in the country, city officials said — as Bay Area leaders search for solutions to rising poverty and inequality in the wake of the pandemic.

Through the pilot program, residents will receive $500 a month for at least 18 months with no strings attached, Mayor Libby Schaaf said at a Tuesday news conference. Checks could be in residents’ hands by this spring or summer. Low-income families — with at least one child under 18 — who are Black, indigenous or people of color will be randomly selected through an application process to vet eligibility, Schaaf said. Officials said those groups suffer from the greatest wealth disparity, according to data on Oakland’s population.

More than 70,000 people — or 16.7% of Oakland’s population — live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census.

“Our vision is an Oakland that has closed the racial wealth gap and where all families thrive,” Schaaf said of the Oakland Resilient Families program.

“We believe that guaranteed income is the most transformative policy that can achieve this vision and whose time has come.”

In the wake of devastating job losses during the pandemic that have exacerbated housing and food insecurity, guaranteed income is gaining momentum. San Francisco is considering a similar program and voted in December to begin studying a pilot program for between 500 and 1,000 residents.

Supporters say that guaranteed income, which provides cash payments with no strings attached, can lift people out of poverty, address income inequality, alleviate stress and improve health. Critics say the programs are expensive and could discourage people from working. They also worry that if it replaces other federal programs, as some supporters advocate, it would hurt — rather than help — low-income people.

Oakland’s program is different than some other cities because it’s focused on people of color.

In Oakland, residents — regardless of immigration status —who are at or below 50% of area median income — about $59,000 per year for a family of three — are eligible. Half of the spots are reserved for very-low-income families earning below 138% of the federal poverty level — about $30,000 per year for a family of three.

“The program sounds very promising,” said Candice Elder, executive director of East Oakland Collective, a community organization that helps homeless and low-income people.

“What we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is how the community needs universal income… with no strings attached. And I’m glad Oakland is following in the footsteps of Stockton.”

Oakland is paying for the program with private donations from Blue Meridian Partners, a philanthropic organization focused on poverty. So far, it’s raised more than $6.7 million and about 80% of those funds are going into the hands of residents. The Family Independence Initiative, a national nonprofit based in Oakland focused on fighting poverty, will run the program and it will begin with East Oakland residents before opening applications to other parts of the city.

Jesús Gerena, the CEO of Family Independence Initiative, said the program will first target East Oakland because it has the “highest concentration of eligible families” and is one of the worst COVID-19 hot spots in the Bay Area.

Prospective participants can apply now by filling out a multilingual online form with eligibility screening questions. The city’s goal is to get checks into the hands of 300 residents this spring and 300 more by the summer.

The initiative is modeled after Stockton’s program, which provided $500 every month to 125 people for 24 months. Launched by former Mayor Michael Tubbs, Stockton led one of the first guaranteed income programs in the U.S.

Tubbs, who lost re-election in 2020, said Tuesday when the program was first launched, opponents said people would stop working and would instead spend their money on drugs and alcohol. That didn’t happen, he said.

“Civil rights has always been about protection — not just from police brutality but also from the brutality of poverty, the brutality of economic insecurity, the brutality of not being able to know if your bills will be paid every month and not because you’re not working hard,” Tubbs said.

“We found that people were healthier. People were able to show up as parents, as partners and as neighbors,” he added.

Jesse Rothstein, a professor of public policy and economics at UC Berkeley, said there is no doubt that giving people money helps. Rothstein, who co-authored a study called Universal Basic Income in the U.S. and Advanced Countries, said studies show that programs like basic income or food stamps help families and result in better outcomes for kids.

While pilot programs are a critical first step, permanent programs are needed, Rothstein said. And that’s dependent on the federal government getting involved because it requires an “enormous amount of money.”

“As you think about going beyond the pilot to something more general, you can’t ignore the question of how we are going to come up with the resources,” Rothstein said.

Schaaf said she hopes that Oakland’s pilot program, as well as others throughout the country, will prove why the federal government needs to invest in guaranteed income.

Surisa King, a 53-year-old mother who lives in East Oakland, is a disabled veteran who served in the Navy for four years. She receives $1,000 a month for disability and has been struggling financially. She has racked up parking tickets because there’s no available free parking near her apartment and a nearby garage costs $240 a month — which she can’t afford.

King, who expressed interest in the city’s program, said it’s “very difficult living on a limited income, especially when you factor in food, car insurance, AAA and rent.”

Phillip DeVaughn, a 66-year-old Oakland resident, said he lost his job as a track and field coach for high school students due to the pandemic. His only income is a $1,700 social security check every month.

DeVaughn said having that extra $500 a month would help.

“When I saw the guaranteed income program, it looked like something that could be of benefit to a retiree,” he said before asking how to apply.

Guaranteed income has gained interest among city leaders in recent years and even some tech leaders, including Mark Zuckerberg. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang ran his campaign on the idea and announced last May that his nonprofit, Humanity Forward, will issue $500 a month for five years to 20 residents in Hudson, New York.

Last year, Tubbs formed Mayors for a Guaranteed Income Coalition — which includes mayors from Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Oakland — to advocate for these programs.

Councilman Loren Taylor said Oakland’s program has the “benefit” of learning from other similar initiatives.

“There is a network of public entities, institutions that are doing guaranteed income — we are building on that as opposed to starting from ground zero with a blank slate,” he said.

Taylor said guaranteed income will most help those struggling the most.

“It’s definitely exciting,” he said. “It’s huge for Oakland.”


Sarah Ravani is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: sravani@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SarRavani

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