By: Sarah Holder
In more than 20 US cities that launched basic income programs during the pandemic, the average person receiving monthly support was a woman making just enough money to put her over the federal poverty line. Most beneficiaries were single, most had kids, and most were people of color. They received up to $1,000 a month, usually for about a year, and overall spent the largest share of the money at superstores and smaller retailers. A quarter of the funds across projects went to food, and under 6% went to travel and leisure.
This data, which was released publicly today, provides an early look at the reach and impact of city pilot programs designed to test the power of no-strings-attached cash. Eventually, more than 30 cities will share their data on this dashboard as part of a project by the Stanford Basic Income Lab, the Center for Guaranteed Income Research, and Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, an advocacy coalition formed in 2020 that now includes 100 city leaders.
“The idea has always been to illustrate that what we found in Stockton wasn’t a fluke,” said Michael Tubbs, the founder of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and the former mayor of Stockton, California, which launched one of the first guaranteed income experiments in the US back in 2019. Data from the first year of the two-year Stockton project showed that recipients mostly spent money on food and essentials, and that they secured full-time work at higher rates than those in a control group. “Working people know how to spend money in ways that provide for themselves and their families,” he said.
This latest national data dump, which includes information about 7,300 participants, also illustrates how the guaranteed income movement has evolved beyond its oft-cited cousin, universal basic income (UBI). Far from being universal, the programs that took off during the pandemic directed aid to specific groups with unique struggles: new mothers in Birmingham, Alabama; formerly incarcerated people in Gainesville, Florida; artists in St. Paul, Minnesota; fathers in Columbia, South Carolina. In part because of the programs’ designs and in part because of structural inequities that mean people of color are disproportionately lower-income, more than 40% of recipients were African American, 33% were of mixed race, and 25% were Latino. About one in six identified as White.
Overall, it’s low-income parents of color who have benefited most.
“What’s interesting is that just a generation before, these same groups were demonized in terms of the ‘welfare queen’ trope,” said Tubbs. “So I think it’s amazing how people are now saying, ‘Oh, this is the best investment we can make. Let’s invest in our future.’ And by doing that, you have to invest in the caregivers of our future.”
Research shows that cash assistance can increase babies’ brain function and help parents spend more time on early learning activities with their children. It can pay for child care, birthday presents and unexpected time off.
For Miyah Ford, 25, the $375 a month she’s received from Birmingham’s Embrace Mothers project since March is currently the only income she has to support her baby and four-year-old. Previously a hostess at a hospital, where she pushed large carts of trays, Ford says she lost her job after her doctor told her it wasn’t safe to lift or push anything heavy while pregnant. The assistance “definitely helps with a lot of stress that I’m pretty sure me and others have when we do have to do it alone, or do face financial hardship,” she said.
Many of the pilots are designed as randomized control trials and are being evaluated by University of Pennsylvania researchers. The hope is to break down stigmas around welfare, dispel misconceptions and ultimately produce data that compels national policy change, Tubbs said.
Advocates agree that the long-term sustainability of these programs relies on getting national legislation passed. But recent history shows how challenging that may be. Consider the expanded child tax credit, which advocates say comes closest to the ideals of a guaranteed income, and which during the pandemic temporarily reduced child poverty by 30%. Despite support among national Democrats, those more generous payments have expired, and efforts to make them permanent have failed.
Still, on the local level, support for guaranteed income programs has only grown since the extreme economic uncertainty of the pandemic and the racial reckoning spurred by the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police. A hundred projects have been launched in the US to date, according to the Economic Security Project, which advocates for guaranteed income nationally. Nearly 50 have been launched by Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. While early programs like Stockton’s were funded entirely by philanthropy, the majority of mayor-led projects have received government funding, including federal American Rescue Plan dollars.
“I don’t think there are any two pilots that are alike. We’re trying out different things to see what works,” said Victoria Woodards, the mayor of Tacoma, Washington, which launched its pilot, Growing Resilience in Tacoma (GRIT), last December.
Tacoma targeted 110 working people making within 100% and 200% of the federal poverty line — a population called ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, employed) for short.
It’s a group that the traditional safety net doesn’t catch, Woodards said. Take Geno Rosario, 39, a single father of three who makes $26 an hour as a technology consultant. While he technically makes too much money to qualify for federal assistance, he spends more than half of his monthly income on rent and was “barely making ends meet” when he applied for GRIT.
“It’s a very, very careful balancing act,” he said. “Because if one thing goes wrong, it could set me behind for months.”