Money for the People: Local guaranteed-income pilot programs are spreading across the country.

AuthorThomhave, Kalena

The results from the first year of the program were released in March, and they are promising: Recipients had improved mental health, were more economically stable, and were even more likely to find full-time work. "I sleep better," said one SEED participant. "My mind's not racing all the time thinking about next months rent."

Preliminary, anecdotal findings from SEED had shown similar potential--and then a pandemic spiraled into an economic crisis, intensifying national interest in the project. In June 2020, then-Mayor of Stockton Michael Tubbs created a network of mayors committed to the concept of guaranteed income for their own cities. They called it Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, or MGI.

At the time of the announcement, Tubbs, who lost his re-election campaign in November, had ten other mayors on board; now there are fifty, all Democrats. Mayors in cities from Shreveport, Louisiana, and Gary, Indiana, to Montpelier, Vermont, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, have signed on, and the group is still growing. As of mid-May, more than a dozen cities had guaranteed-income pilot programs in various stages of the planning and implementation processes. (Not all mayors in the network plan to conduct a pilot.)

Of MGI-partnered cities, twenty-one have publicly announced pilots and some are currently providing benefits, many supported with initial grants from the MGI network. Several more pilots plan to launch this year, including some non-MGI pilots run by private organizations, rather than cities.

Generally, these pilots are similar to the Stockton model in that they provide small-scale cash distributions to a small sample of people; but they differ in size, cash amount, and target population. For example, Hudson, New York, is providing $500 per month to twenty-five residents, while Compton, California, is sending monthly cash payments of $300 to $600 to 800 residents and Los Angeles may send $1,000 monthly to 2,000 families for one year.

Most participants live in low-income areas, and some pilots may also target specific populations. Gainesville, Florida, is planning a pilot for the formerly incarcerated, and Richmond, Virginia, is sending cash to people who are ineligible for public benefits but still don't make a living wage.

While media headlines have touted the projects as "universal basic income pilot" programs, they are in fact not universal, and the payments are too small to cover anybody's basic needs. Most pilots intentionally call themselves "guaranteed income," yet universal basic income, guaranteed income, and basic income continue to be conflated. What they do have in common, however, is that they are all unrestricted cash payments.

For some, the diverse political bases supporting unrestricted cash payments add to their appeal, with early proponents ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Milton Friedman. President Richard Nixon attempted to pass such a program (it failed after he got spooked by advisers warning him that people would turn into profligates). Tech enthusiasts in Silicon Valley, seeking answers to the "what-about-the-robots question" (i.e., automation), have signaled their support. And feminists have long seen unrestricted cash payments as potential compensation for unpaid care labor.

Yet the lack of shared...

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