Support Grows for Guaranteed Income Among America’s Mayors

In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Martin Luther King, Jr. laid out a vision of a country where poverty was abolished—not incrementally, but with sweeping finality. Guaranteeing jobs wouldn’t be enough, he argued: The government would have to guarantee an annual income. 

More than 50 years later, the concept of a universal basic income has grown as closely associated with job-killing robots as civil rights. But the need to explore regular, unconditional cash payments as a means of achieving racial and economic justice is more urgent than ever, says Mayor Michael Tubbs, who is leading one of the first major U.S. basic income experiments in his hometown of Stockton, California. Since February 2019, Tubbs has been working with researchers to disburse $500 a month to 125 residents.

“It’s important for me that any discussion of a basic income is grounded in those roots, and understand that it’s not a new conversation,” he said. “With the twin pandemics of racism and Covid-19, it’s time for us to extend the social safety net.” 

This week, Tubbs announced the formation of the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income Coalition, a group of city leaders who have committed to investigating how to launch direct guaranteed income projects in their communities, and advocating for state and federal solutions.

The majority of the mayors are Black, and hail from places like Atlanta, Los Angeles, Compton, Newark, Shreveport, St. Paul, and Jackson, Mississippi; the 11 cities they govern have a collective population of 7 million, and more cities expected to join. (Pittsburgh’s Bill Peduto announced that he’s number 12, in a tweet.)

“We don’t necessarily agree on everything, but we do agree that our constituents deserve an income floor,” Tubbs said of the group. 

Details are scarce as to what cities will launch local UBI pilots, and when. But the group endorsement has another, broader, goal: raising consciousness about the transformative power of no-strings-attached cash. Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang may have helped make UBI a household concept last year, but as the country confronts those “twin pandemics,” Tubbs has found a fitting moment to drive home the vision.

Federal aid in the form of $1,200 checks and extra unemployment assistance has gained bipartisan support. Even though these federal payments have been spotty and in some cases slow to arrive, research shows the aid has tangibly helped keep families out of poverty. On Tuesday, the bipartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors also voted unanimously on a resolution affirming the need for more pilots and more federal advocacy around guaranteed income.

“Two years ago when we started this project, we were a bit on our own with Mayor Tubbs and the [Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration] team,” said Amy Castro Baker, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-principal investigator of Stockton’s guaranteed income pilot. “Fast forward in time and we’re having a real conversation at the federal level and across multiple cities about the power of cash. That to me shows that there is political will and that the public is ready for it.”

As Covid-19 kills disproportionate numbers of Black and Brown Americans, who areoverrepresented in essential fields like agriculture and care work, they’re also entering a recession saddled with historic income disparities: The median white family holdsnearly ten times as much net worth as the median Black family, and Black and Latina women consistently make less on the dollar than their white male counterparts.

While some proponents of UBI argue that aid should be truly universal, regardless of need, most ongoing pilots in the U.S. account for these inequities. Stockton’s program has focused on distributing money to residents in the city’s poorest census tracts and uses philanthropic funds, not taxpayer dollars.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has supported the Magnolia Mothers Trust, a guaranteed income project targeted specifically at extremely low-income Black mothers launched in 2018 by the local nonprofit Springboard to Opportunities. In 2018, 20 women were given $1,000 a month for 12 months; they used the money to pay off a collective $10,000 in debt, and all of them reported feeling optimistic about where the next five years might take them. This March, a new group of 100 mothers was chosen for the ongoing support. 

Other mayors in the network have expressed interest in launching their own projects, but have so far taken more limited steps: Last year, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka launched a task force on guaranteed income, concluding that Americans—and Newark residents—needed “more cash in their hands.” Newark’s median income is less than $40,000 a year, and nearly 20% of poor families who’d be eligible for federal assistance like food stamps or Earned Income Tax Credit funding fall through the cracks. By pursuing a basic income pilot, Baraka wrote in a report introducing the guaranteed income task force’s findings, “we will make a direct impact on hundreds of lives immediately, and join with our sister cities from around the country in advocating for a federal guaranteed income policy.” Chicago and Atlanta have convened guaranteed income task forces, too.

While Stockton’s program was supposed to wrap up this summer, Covid-19 introduced new stressors, and after a last-minute donation from a private philanthropist, SEED wasextended, allowing recipients to keep getting their monthly disbursements until January 2021. The need won’t evaporate next winter, Tubbs acknowledges, but SEED was always conceived as a short-term support, and a long-term learning experience. With the mayor’s coalition, Tubbs hopes to build on Stockton’s findings.

“I always knew that once we ended the initial trial for Stockton, we’d want to use what we’d done to inform other cities,” he said. In recent months, especially, Tubbs says his staff has been overwhelmed by questions about how to launch similar basic income programs; the coalition is a place where multiple cities can share resources.

Detractors of such programs doubt that people will make good decisions with their money, or worry that they’ll stop working—some buying into theracist myth of the “welfare queen.” But thus far, people in Stockton have spent much of their money on basic necessities: Food typically made up around 30% to 40% of the tracked spending each month in the earlier phases of the pilot, and when the pandemic started in March, that proportion jumped to nearly half. Others warn that UBI is being supported by tech leaders like Elon Musk as an excuse to automate away low-wage labor, and that the expense of such policies would necessitate cutting other safety-net programs,at a potential net loss to poor people. 

The coalition’s website attempts to dispel these argumentsGuaranteed income is a supplement to the safety net, rather than a replacement for other social programs, they stress. It’s necessary, they say, given the Federal Reserve Board’s findings that an estimated 40% of Americans don’t have enough of a cushion to cover a $400 emergency. And it has to be flexible, they argue, because every family will choose to spend their money differently, and should be given the respect to make that choice. 

 “A guaranteed income implicitly recognizes that poor and working-class families, like all families, should be able to lead self-directed lives,” Baraka wrote. “In doing so, it provides an essential recalibration of our societal values: We all deserve dignity, and we all deserve self-determination. This is where our nation should be heading.”

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