The People’s Pledge: Building Guaranteed Income as Communities’ Vision for Freedom in California
By: Nika Soon-Shiong, Founder and Executive Director, Fund for Guaranteed Income
Less than an hour’s drive from the pristine homes of Beverly Hills, the tree-lined campuses of UCLA, and the booming heart of the entertainment industry, Compton faces an economic crisis. Of its 100,000 residents, 19.5% are living at or below the federal poverty line, compared to 11.6% nationally.
In the absence of well-paying jobs, its residents – 30% of whom are Black and 68%, Latinx – are ever vulnerable to the willful neglect of our threadbare safety net. Many are unbanked, uninsured, and at the height of the pandemic, one in five was unemployed. While Hollywood has capitalized on an image of Compton as the “murder capital of the United States,” profited off of Compton’s talent, its real story is one of resilience – a bold demand for dignity in the face of an illusory American dream.
In 2020, Former Compton Mayor Aja Brown called for an abolition of poverty in the United States. Building on the ideological foundation laid by Dr. Martin Luther King, she explained that this was neither niche nor “radical,” but a politics of care rooted in decades of empirical research. Since that day, we at the Fund For Guaranteed Income (F4GI) have worked tirelessly to advance that vision: building and scaling the technological infrastructure needed to disperse cash payments broadly, including to people historically excluded from the welfare state like undocumented and formerly incarcerated individuals.
Beyond economics and the pursuit of good public policy, our work is deeply human.
Our implementation of guaranteed income pilots began with the Compton Pledge, a two-year program supporting 800 low-income families in the cultural heart of California. Since launch, it has distributed $6 million out of a total allocated $10.2 million, which the Jain Family Institute projects will close 70% of the racial wealth gap for the average participating family. Additionally, The Compton Pledge has brought calls on the government to “pilot programs for universal basic income” into the national mainstream. Collaborating with independent researchers to study the impact of raising the income floor, we have been able to see first-hand the benefit of these cash flows on employment opportunities, mental and physical health, and the strength of these communities.
A mother of two with chronic illness was able to afford her medications; a woman subsisting on poverty wages was able to pay her bills, then invest the incremental time on finishing her degree. In essence, they were afforded the dignity we all deserve. We are actively working with participants to tell their stories, through narrative cohorts like The Voices of Compton Pledge (VOCP), reframing flawed and racist welfare stereotypes, and advancing a liberatory shift in paradigm.
Today, F4GI connects ~2000 low-income residents to cash, case management, and community resources monthly. New pilots have emerged in other cities, most recently Long Beach, where the Long Beach Pledge will provide 250 single-head families in one of the areas most devastated by COVID-19 with cash payments, $500 per month for one year, along with services like financial counseling intended to invest in their long term prosperity. It is made possible by the Long Beach Recovery Act, a plan to fund economic and public health initiatives for Long Beach residents, workers and businesses critically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The City of Long Beach has partnered with F4GI to create the program’s payment platform, which connects qualified participants to support services like financial counseling, in addition to distributing the monthly payments.
Our work aims to be as nimble and innovative as the systems cementing poverty are sinister. We will continue to advance the evidence base around accessible welfare systems, develop the tools which can create them, and build the coalitions that will demand them. Forever grateful to the City of Compton for allowing us to implement this initiative, we aim to continue expanding our pledge across city lines, and eventually the nation.