Guaranteed income is a robust response to so many contradictions.
We see the benefits of divorcing work from worth playing out in Stockton, California. Mayor Michael Tubbs, the first Black mayor elected to office at the ripe age of 26, is running a guaranteed income pilot. He makes the case that poverty comes from a lack of cash, not a lack of character.
We knew providing a stable income was important pre-pandemic, but post-pandemic it is a lifeline for Stockton families. Guaranteed income helps these families weather the crisis with more resilience than their neighbors.
I can’t help but imagine how this approach could have helped millions more if it had been part of our economic approach across the country. What would it mean to have this kind of an economic floor?
Named the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), the program gives 125 families in Stockton an income floor of $500 a month for 18 months. The income is unconditional. This means there are no strings attached and no work requirements.
Stockton is a city in the process of reinventing itself, with no shortage of challenges. It was the largest city to go bankrupt after the last financial crisis. It’s a city that is representative of America, with a majority of the population being people of color. One in four Stocktonians live in poverty; the median income is around $44,000.
The families participating in the guaranteed income pilot provide compelling data for how cash transfers allow families to remain resilient in the face of a pandemic. In these families, we see how no-strings-attached cash provides a way forward in economic uncertainty.
That resilience is the promise of the SEED project in particular, and the promise of guaranteed income more broadly.
To see the impact on people’s lives, let’s look at one recipient’s story.
For Tomas, the outbreak happened as he was getting his security clearance for a job at the airport. As with many companies, the pandemic caused a hiring freeze and halted the application process at the airport.
Suddenly finding himself out of work and without any jobless benefits, the guaranteed income became Tomas’ sole financial fallback.
Tomas can’t live on $500 or even $1,000 a month, but the guaranteed income is not meant to be an income on its own. It supports resilience. It works to stabilize the erratic ups and downs and to help people through difficult times in times of widespread destabilization. This is something we should all have, and our current political and economic moment makes it a possibility. We can make this kind of economic care and resilience part of our reality in the wake of COVID-19.
We are often asked, “What do people spend the money on?” The answer: People spend the money on food, general supplies, and utilities. But wanting to know exactly where the money goes misses the point. A more interesting question is: “What does the money do?” The evidence shows that meaningful psychological and emotional gains are embedded in providing people with the resources to take care of their basic needs.
Researchers Dr. Amy Castro Baker and Dr. Stacia West, who are independently evaluating the Stockton program, understand this point. Beyond tracking the basics of where the money goes, they are evaluating questions of wellbeing, including stress levels, hope, and feelings of belonging. The two researchers define hope in the way that they ask the question: “Do you want to wake up in the morning?” Hope is about goals, pathways, and agency. As Dr. Castro Baker puts it, “Keep in mind — the opposite of hope is despair. Understanding how economic security is linked to hope is key. Many would argue that change and justice are simply not possible without hope.”
They also ask interviewees, “Do you feel seen? Do you feel seen as a human being by institutions with power over your life?” If you don’t feel like you matter as a human, your capacity for hope is limited. Hope is one of the most significant predictors of whether or not you will engage with positive and healthy interventions when capitalism has already spit you out, or when it has communicated to you that you do not serve a purpose.
According to Dr. Castro Baker, “Hope is about saying: To what degree can a justice-based intervention such as a guaranteed income serve as a financial vaccine in a prolonged stressful environment with an unknown end?”
Early trends indicate that, with just $500 cash a month, people can move the needle on both hope and belonging.
Better Ideas Aren’t Necessarily New Ideas
It has been heartening to see guaranteed income percolate into Stockton society as a possible response to the pandemic and the treacherous economic insecurity experienced by so many Americans. Giving people cash works. I
t’s not a new idea; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also spoke and wrote extensively on the power of a guaranteed income. He was pushed in his thinking by activists such as Johnnie Tillmon, who played a critical role in the National Welfare Rights Organization.
Nearly 50 years ago Johnnie Tillmon, a welfare rights advocate, wrote, “The truth is, a job doesn’t necessarily mean an adequate income. There are some ten million jobs that now pay less than the minimum wage, and if you’re a woman, you’ve got the best chance of getting one.” Tillmon’s words are still true today.
As a result of the pandemic, more and more Americans experience low wages, income insecurity, degrading interactions with benefits offices, and lack of protections. While these have been the consistent experience of many Black Americans, the blacklight is exposing others to this harsh reality as well. The extraordinary economic disruption is now moving beyond the segregated zip codes, where it has lingered untended for far too long.
While the impacts of the coronavirus mean that more people now experience economic inequality, people of color have been advocating for economic justice for decades. We now have an opportunity and a responsibility to advance new rules with old roots in a meaningful way right now.
Even in a short amount of time, we’ve made tremendous strides. When I cofounded the Economic Security Project, guaranteed income struck people as a far-fetched idea and even a pipe dream. But that just isn’t the case anymore.
The uncomfortable truth is that there will be future pandemics — whether they are the result of climate change, job automation, or something entirely unforeseen. We will find ourselves here again. But let’s make sure that, when that day comes, the economic realities of American families are in a very different place. Right now, we can begin to offer the economic resilience required to weather these changes and the turmoil they bring.
As a nation, there is still much reckoning to be done. But we can’t be an anti-racist, just society until we have safe and stable families and communities. And for this we need cash. Let’s first provide a guaranteed income to stabilize every family. Then we can get to the hard work of healing this nation together.
This excerpt is adapted from The New Possible: Visions of Our World Beyond Crisis, published by Cascade Books, an imprint Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Natalie Foster is the president and cofounder of the Economic Security Project, a network dedicated to advancing a guaranteed income in America and reining in the unprecedented concentration of corporate power.