The new program, which has raised $6.75m from private donors, will give low-income families of color $500 a month
Oakland is set to become the latest city in California to launch a guaranteed income program, with the mayor announcing Tuesday a privately funded program for low-income families of color.
The Oakland Resilient Families program will give families that meet a certain threshold $500 a month, with no rules on how they spend it. The program has so far raised $6.75m from private donors including Blue Meridian Partners, a national philanthropy group.
“The poverty we all witness today is not a personal failure, it is a systems failure,” Libby Schaaf, Oakland’s mayor, said in a statement. “Guaranteed income is one of the most promising tools for systems change, racial equity and economic mobility we’ve seen in decades. I’m proud to work with such committed local partners to build a new system that can help undo centuries of economic and racial injustice, and point us all toward a more just society.”
Guaranteed income, also known as universal basic income (UBI), is based on the concept that giving people a set amount of money each month can help break cycles of poverty, by allowing them to stop living the paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle that contributes to poor health and hinders their ability to find better, full-time work.
Mayors across the country have launched small, temporary programs in a coordinated effort to convince Congress to adopt the program nationally. Oakland’s project will be one of the largest so far, targeting up to 600 families.
“We have designed this demonstration project to add the body of evidence, and to begin this relentless campaign to adopt a guaranteed income federally,” Schaaf said.
The first program was launched in 2019 in Stockton, California, led by the city’s former mayor Michael Tubbs. Tubbs has said that six similar programs in other cities should be up and running by the summer.
In San Francisco, the city launched a program in September providing an unconditional monthly income supplement of $1,000 to pregnant Black and Pacific Islander women for the duration of their pregnancies and for the first six months of their babies’ lives. Across the bay, the Marin county board of supervisors voted Tuesday to participate in its own two-year guaranteed income project.
Oakland’s program will limit participation strictly to Black, Indigenous and other communities of color, in a nod to the legacy of the Black Panther Party, the political movement that was founded in Oakland in the 1960s. White households in Oakland make, on average, about three times more annually than Black households, according to the Oakland Equity Index.
“Guaranteed income has been a goal of the Black Panther platform since its founding,” said Jesus Gerena, the chief executive of Family Independence Initiative, which is partnering with the program in Oakland. “Direct investment in the community in response to systemic injustices isn’t new.”
To be eligible for the Oakland scheme, people must have at least one child under 18 and income at or below 50% of the area median income – about $59,000 a year for a family of three.
Half the spots are reserved for people who earn below 138% of the federal poverty level, or about $30,000 a year for a family of three. Participants will be randomly selected from a pool of applicants who meet the eligibility requirements.
The idea of a guaranteed income dates to the 18th century. The US government experimented with it in the 1960s and 1970s when Republicans Donald Rumsfeld, later a defense secretary, and Dick Cheney, the future vice-president, oversaw four programs across the country during the Nixon administration.
Those studies concluded the money did not stop people from working, causing Nixon to recommend expanding the program. But it never got through Congress.
Decades later, proponents are trying again, only this time it’s led by progressive mayors. An independent review found that after one year of getting the money, 40% of recipients had full-time jobs compared with 28% before the program started.
It’s unclear what a national guaranteed income program would look like. A proposal by the former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang could have cost $2.8tn a year.
In California, a proposal by the assemblyman Evan Low to give $1,000 a month to adults with certain incomes could cost up to $129bn annually – more than half the state’s general fund budget – paid for by a new 1% tax on incomes above $2m.
Critics, including labor unions, worry such expensive programs could force the elimination of other safety net programs, like social security and food stamps. But Schaaf said she is unapologetic that “the social safety net programs must remain”.
“We believe that those safety net programs should not go away, but should be supplemented with unconditional cash that gives families the dignity and flexibility to meet their needs,” she said.