Los Angeles is the latest city in the US to announce the launch of a guaranteed income program

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.

Key findings from the first year of the Stockton study released

In February 2019, then-Stockton Mayor Michael D. Tubbs launched the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (‘SEED’), a 24-month guaranteed income initiative, the first mayor-led initiative of the sort in the US. Two years later, the preliminary results from the first twelve months of the experiment (through to February 2020, before the pandemic) have been released and the key findings are positive with the guaranteed income reducing income volatility, enabling access to full-time work, improving mental health and allowing better control over one’s time and decisions.

Program design

Under the SEED program, 125 Stockton residents were randomly selected to receive $500 per month for two years with no conditions attached to the handout and limited eligibility criteria namely: being at least 18 years old, being a Stockton resident and living in a neighbourhood at or below the median income ($46,003 in Stockton). A control group of 200 individuals meeting those same criteria was also established for research purposes.

The experiment is funded with private donations including a $1 million grant from the Economic Security Project, an initiative that aims at “making the economy work again for all Americans” with a specific focus on guaranteed income and anti-monopoly action. 

The program is being evaluated by two researchers, Dr. Stacia Martin-West of the University of Tennessee, and Dr. Amy Castro Baker of the University of Pennsylvania under a ‘mixed-methods approach’ consisting in both a quantitative and qualitative analysis of data collected before and during the experiment. The data was collected through both surveys and in-person or group interviews (participation in the experiment was not conditional on participating in these interviews).

The experiment was designed in close cooperation with public authorities and community members to tailor it to local specificities (disbursement timing and mechanism for instance) and to build trust between recipients, control group members and SEED staff. This work was necessary to address initial concerns around the unconditional and guaranteed nature of the income (considered ‘too good to be true’) and the risk of loss of eligibility for other benefits (covered through specific work by the Economic Security Project).

Key findings

The preliminary results show that recipients made rational decisions about the income they were receiving, mostly spending it on ‘necessities’ (food, utilities, auto care). The researchers also found positive spillover effects with recipients being able to assist people in their extended networks more. Recipients also faced less income volatility and, noticeably, reported being more able to face unexpected expenses with cash or a cash-equivalent than before.

The guaranteed income gave recipients more time to engage in meaningful activities (socialising, spending time with children). This, according to the researchers, highlights how “financial scarcity generates time scarcity”. Participants also reported improvements in mental health when members of the control group did not experience the same improvements. Participants also reported improvements in mental health compared to the baseline measures when members of the control group did not experience the same improvements.

Finally, the program also resulted in an increase in full-time employment. 28% of recipients had a full-time job at the beginning of the project. After a year that proportion had risen to 40% (in the control group the proportion only moved from 32% to 37%). Some individuals indicated that the guaranteed income allowed them time to train or complete a degree or simply gave them more confidence to apply for certain positions.

Reactions

Reactions to the release of the study have been positive with the findings seen as further evidence that these programs do not remove incentives to work and that, as the researchers put it, “poverty results from a lack of cash, not of character” making cash transfers an effective way of addressing poverty (the researchers as well as Mayor Tubbs are quick to point out however that these cash transfers cannot be the only solution to the issues faced by residents of a city such as Stockton).

On the other hand some have pointed out that SEED remains a small-scale and relatively short experiment and have cautioned about drawing conclusions too rapidly from the study. Another limitation of the study is that tracking of expenses from the guaranteed income relied on recipients collaborating with the researchers (the income was transferred to a prepaid debit card to be used directly and through which researchers had access to spending records, or to be withdrawn as cash or to another account. In those cases, about 40% of the recipients, researchers had to conduct specific surveys). Finally, some critics have used the fact that the experiment was being privately funded to argue that basic income was too expensive for public authorities.

Regardless, these results are sure to add to the growing debate about basic income in the US. Other experiments are ongoing, and in June 2020, Michael Tubbs and the Economic Security Project founded Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a network of around 40 mayors across the US working on implementing guaranteed-income experiments in their cities.

https://www.stocktondemonstration.org/

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