Guaranteed basic income promises to help Fresno recipients land jobs, pay rent, set goals

Laura Plummer, 70, is grateful to have been selected to participate in the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, a basic-income pilot program that provided unconditional cash transfers of $500 a month since February 2019. She said she’d still be working if not for an injury that dislocated her knee when she was volunteering for the Obama campaign. RENÉE C. BYER SACRAMENTO BEE FILE

By Amber Cromwell and Heather Brown

We’ve all heard the argument that “poverty is a choice.” The reality is that’s true — but not for the reason one might think. As former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs reminds us, “poverty is a policy choice, not a personal one.” The reality is that poverty has more to do with the policies behind how resources get distributed in a nation with more than enough to financially stabilize every family.

Across the country, Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) is transforming from a vision on the margins to a mainstream policy goal.

The premise is simple: direct cash to low-income families in monthly payments, no strings attached. If this sounds familiar, it might be because you know that nearly 90% of American families with children have been receiving monthly cash payments from the Child Tax Credit expansion (and 56% of families reported reduced financial anxiety from just the first payment). Or because you benefited from the multiple economic stimulus payments from the government during the pandemic, which moved 11.7 million Americans out of poverty and reduced the Supplemental Poverty Measure rate by 2.6% in 2020.

While stimulus checks have significantly aided families throughout the pandemic, census data show that the further we get from the last federal stimulus check dispersed in March 2021, the more families struggle to eat and pay rent. GBI proposals used to face more skepticism, even from those who are theoretically supportive of a social safety net. That was until a bold mayor put the idea to the test and produced stunning results. Mayor Tubbs championed GBI through the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), granting low-income families monthly cash payments of $500 over 24 months. The analysis revealed that the participants spent the money on basic needs, were more likely to find full-time employment, experienced less depression and anxiety, and were more willing to take risks to invest in their futures.

The real, tangible benefits of giving money directly to families who are struggling to make ends meet are simply undeniable.

Fresno has some of the highest rates of poverty and concentrated poverty in the nation. Over the past year, Fresno County had the second highest increase in rents in the country and many workers were at least $1,000 short of the monthly income needed to afford the average rent.

For many Fresno families, a GBI could literally make the difference between their rent going from unaffordable to affordable. It would address longstanding systemic racial inequities, given that Black and Latino communities carry much of the economic and social burdens of poverty. It would also create a more resilient economy and provide greater financial freedom.

Our vision for GBI in Fresno — making it the second such program in the Central Valley — could be a game changer, first and foremost for the families it serves, but also for the national understanding of how to provide a safety net and opportunities for all of our most vulnerable neighbors.

For one, Fresno’s urban and rural communities have different needs, but a shared lack of basic resources, making us unique among many current guaranteed income project locations. Second, a GBI program in Fresno would revitalize the struggling local economy as Fresno families spend more money at local businesses.

With growing local and national support combined with recent state legislation that has allocated $35 million to support local GBI programs, it is clear that this is the right next step for Fresno. Multiple local organizations have formed a coalition to advance a Fresno program, including the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, Faith in the Valley, and the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce. Fresno State’s newly launched Center for Community Voices will provide on-the-ground research on the program’s impact and support recipients to tell their own stories.

Solutions to poverty don’t have to be complicated. It really is as simple as giving people the money that they need to stop surviving day to day, find stable ground, and start planning for the future.

Dr. Amber Crowell is associate professor of sociology and co-director of the Center for Community Voices at Fresno State.

Heather Brown is the chief administrative officer of the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission (EOC).

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