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Two of the largest counties in the US are leading a new coalition to advocate for programs that provide no-strings-attached cash payments to residents in need, an effort that could extend the success of guaranteed income pilots born out of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Chicago’s Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, both of whom have launched guaranteed income programs in their communities, will serve as co-chairs of Counties for a Guaranteed Income, a 20-member coalition formed to lobby locally and nationally for cash-first assistance policies.
The group is another branch of a network started by Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, another coalition founded in June 2020 by former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs that now counts more than 100 city leaders as members. For two years starting in 2019, 125 randomly selected Stockton residents got $500 a month as part of one of the first major city-led basic income pilots of the recent push.
“Across this country, the electeds closest to the people are saying we need a federal policy,” said Tubbs. “We’ve done our part. But we need the federal government to take what we’ve learned and take what we’ve done and build upon it.”
The launch of Counties for a Guaranteed Income marks a turning point for advocates, who have moved the idea of sending low-income residents regular payments of about $500 to $1,000 a month further into the mainstream. While philanthropic funds fueled many of the early pilots, including Stockton’s, public dollars and American Rescue Plan funds are now at least partially backing the majority of the mayor-led projects, and many of the county-led ones. Resources have come from the state level, too: Last year, California allocated $25 million towards guaranteed income programs in the region.
Counties are typically the places where social services and federal relief aid programs are administered, meaning in some ways they’re better equipped than cities to provide for their most vulnerable communities, county leaders say. They also tend to have more infrastructure to disburse funds, and track outcomes.
“We have the most direct connection to the folks who would benefit from these sorts of programs,” said Susheela Jayapal, a county commissioner for Multnomah County, Oregon.
County pilots in motion
Of the 20 county leaders who have signed on to be a part of Counties for a Guaranteed Income, several have pilots already in motion. They include:
- Los Angeles County’s Breathe LA: Starting in June 2022, 1,000 LA county families have been getting $1,000 a month in one of the largest basic income pilots in the country. To be eligible for the pilot, which will run for 3 years, participants had to prove that they lived in a low-income neighborhood or household, with the income threshold varying by household size, and that the pandemic negatively impacted their financial situation. “We wanted to tap as broad and wide a net as possible,” said LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell. “When I think about all of the government sponsored programs, there are so many invasive offensive hoops we asked for people to jump through to prove that they are worthy of this government investment,” she said. “The whole concept of a guaranteed basic income removes all of that stigma.”
- Multnomah County, Oregon’s Multnomah Mothers’ Trust: Like city-level programs in Jackson, Mississippi, and New York City, the Multnomah Mothers’ Trust supports women with kids. Starting last summer, 100 Black mothers have been getting $500 a month, and an additional $50 if they share their experiences. Seeded by American Rescue Plan dollars, the pilot is funded through 2024, after which Jayapal says she will look at using county general fund dollars or private philanthropy.
- Santa Clara County, California: The Silicon Valley county has looked to address glaring inequalities and housing instability through several cash disbursement programs. In 2020, the county launched a basic income pilot for youth exiting foster care; after extending the program, they’re on their second cohort of 50 participants, who are getting $1,000 a month. Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg is now planning on another basic income program for unhoused and unstably housed high school seniors as they make the transition into college or work. A similar state-level bill introduced in California’s Senate this month would create a statewide program for 15,000 unhoused 12th graders — and if passed, could end up fueling Santa Clara’s program, which is in need of funding.
Return on investment
County leaders see the potential for a return on their investments — the payments may mean they end up spending less on other downstream social services that pick up the slack when people can’t meet their basic needs.
”If we can help more people become economically stable and self-sufficient, that enables us to invest in other programs, and provide greater resources that are beyond our core scope because more people are thriving,” said Ellenberg, the Santa Clara County supervisor.
Local pilots, which are temporary and targeted by design, have worked to build the national case by surfacing stories from recipients whose family lives are fuller, work opportunities are broader and stress levels are lower each month. Data on 20 city pilots and more than 7,000 recipients, released last September, showed that low-income parents of color have benefited most from the funds so far, with a quarter of the spending going towards food.
But with the pandemic and the stimulus it inspired now in the rearview mirror, new challenges have emerged. Many guaranteed income experiments that launched in the past few years are sunsetting. And an effort to permanently expand the child tax credit — viewed by advocates as a powerful and viable example of nearly universal no-strings-attached cash — has failed to advance in Congress. A temporary expansion of the program during the pandemic sent all but the highest-earning families up to $300 a month for each child under 18, and cut child poverty by more than 30%.
Counties for a Guaranteed Income will officially launch Monday at the National Association of Counties conference in Washington, D.C., where county leaders will meet with White House administration officials to make the case for the child tax credit once again.
“It’s something that we’re all keen on getting done,” said Tubbs. “Our job is organizing mayors and county leaders to be the foot soldiers in that effort and use our experience in running the similar programs as a way of building or adding credence to the efficacy of the idea.”