A new guaranteed income program has just been announced in the US, this time in the country’s second largest city, Los Angeles. In his proposed budget for the fiscal year 2021-2022, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti included a $24-million guaranteed basic income project that would see 2,000 families in the city receive an unconditional $1,000 per month for one year. Dubbed “BIG: LEAP” (Basic Income Guaranteed: L.A. Economic Assistance Pilot), the program is one of the biggest of its kind in the US. The announcement was made at the end of April when the city budget proposed for the financial year starting 1 July 2021 was unveiled, the budget is usually approved by the beginning of June.

The details of the plan are being finalised, but the Mayor has confirmed that the payment would be truly unconditional with participants in the program able to use the money however they please. There will be eligibility criteria however such as being at or below the federal poverty line (annual income of $12,880 for a single individual / $17,420 for two persons) and, most likely, supporting a child under the age of 18 and demonstrating financial or medical hardship connected to COVID-19. Immigration status, on the other hand, will not constitute a selection criteria. It also seems that the income will go to households and not individuals.

If approved, BIG: LEAP will be the latest in a series of city-led guaranteed income programs in the country. Jackson, Mississippi in 2018 and Stockton, California in 2019 with the launch of “SEED” (Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration) paved the way and over the past two years, cities as diverse as Oakland (CA), Patterson (NJ), Denver (CO), Chicago (IL), Gary (IN) and many more across the country have announced or implemented some form of guaranteed income programs. 

And these efforts do not occur only at a city level. In Southern California alone, in addition to BIG: LEAP or the pilot implemented in Compton (Compton Pledge), the L.A. County Board of Supervisors has just passed two separate motions asking relevant staff in the administration to design a guaranteed income program for targeted county residents. These first designs are due within 60 days of the motions, i.e. by the third week of July (motion 1; motion 2). Within the city of Los Angeles there are also specific guaranteed income pilots in the South LA and Downtown districts.

Map: main city-led guaranteed income pilots in the US and network of “Mayors for a Guaranteed Income”

Note: programs vary from one city to the next (eligibility criteria, payment amount, duration). Some of the programs that have been announced are yet to be formally approved and started. The map also does not include other initiatives such as, for instance, the payment under the Alaska Permanent Fund which has sometimes been compared to a basic income.  (Map by the author, sources: Mashable.com and Mayors for a Guaranteed Income )

Eligibility criteria vary in each city as do the amount of the cash payment or the duration of the experiment but at any rate, the multiplication of the number of programs in progress is indicative of the growing interest for basic income in the US. The COVID crisis is certainly a factor behind this growing momentum. One of the potential eligibility criteria outlined by Mayor Garcetti in his proposal for the experiment in L.A. directly relates to the pandemic. San Francisco has designed a program targeted at artists hit by the crisis and other cities have referenced the impacts of COVID-19 on the economic situation as one of the factors behind their interest for basic income.

Many of these city-led efforts are being supported by Mayors for a Guaranteed Income (MGI), a nation-wide network of mayors founded by former Stockton Mayor and initiator of the SEED program, Michael D. Tubbs. It is supported by various foundations and non-profit organisations such as the Economic Security Project (involved in the Stockton experiment) or the Jain Family Institute (involved in Compton or in a proposed scheme in Newark, NJ). Indeed, whilst these various programs are first a way to alleviate poverty in specific communities and are only local in nature, they are also seen as experiments that will add to the debate around basic income at the federal level. 

A Pew survey conducted in August 2020 concluded that 54% of Americans oppose or strongly oppose a federal universal basic income.* Proponents of these programs are hoping that the experiments they are conducting will add to the growing body of evidence that unconditional cash transfers not only help to alleviate poverty, but also improve physical and mental wellbeing and, importantly, that they do not remove incentives for people to work. More generally they are hoping that they will contribute to changing the narrative around poverty and economic insecurity.

 *Online survey of 11,001 US adults conducted between July 27 and August 2, 2020, results vary across age groups, ethnicity, political affiliations, and income groups.

About Pierre Piquemal

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