Mayors of nearly a dozen cities, including Los Angeles and Atlanta, pledge to explore direct cash payments to help residents deal with economic insecurity.
Mayors say it’s time to move forward with a policy Martin Luther King called for during the 1960s uprisings: fight poverty with a ‘guaranteed income’ to ensure Americans can pay their basic needs.
“It’s not scary. It does not destroy our country. It doesn’t destroy the work ethic. It makes us stronger,” said Michael Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton, Calif., who launched a small guaranteed income experiment in early 2019, offering $500 a month to 125 residents to spend however they choose.
The coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide uprising against police violence against black Americans have exposed the structural violence of America’s deeply unequal economic system, Tubbs said. “People are ready for a change.”
Eleven mayors joined the “Mayors for a guaranteed income” initiative. The group works with the Economic Security Project, which has funded basic income experiments in Stockton and elsewhere, and is co-chaired by Chris Hughes, a multi-millionaire guaranteed income advocate and one of the founders of Facebook.
Cities that have joined the initiative also include St Paul, Minnesota; Jackson, Mississippi; Newark, New Jersey; Oakland and Compton, California; Shreveport, Louisiana; Columbia, South Carolina; and Tacoma, Washington.
It’s not yet clear how much money cities might distribute, or how many residents might actually receive a check in the near future. Mayors are still working on fundraising for the effort and exploring what experiments might look like in their cities, including how to generate more data that shows the effects of direct cash payments. But Tubbs said he hopes cities will be able to take action on guaranteed income early next year.
Pilot research data in Stockton provided a first glimpse of what many Americans do with an extra $500 a month: Most often, they spend it on food.
The percentage of guaranteed income participants spent on food rose to 46% in the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, Tubbs said. The payments also provided a lifeline to a Stockton resident laid off from his job, who was forced to wait two months to receive his first unemployment check, and provided support to a small business owner who did not did not get a federal grant.
Stockton’s Guaranteed Income payments also help support women doing essential care and domestic work that is usually unpaid at all, Tubbs said.
The pandemic has made it clear that if a family in a community does not have enough money to be able to stay home without working if they have symptoms of coronavirus, or to go to a doctor if they feel sick, that puts the health of the entire community at risk, said Melvin Carter, the mayor of St Paul, Minnesota, a town that has already experimented with direct cash payments to residents.
But the mayors’ goal is long-term change, not just a “band-aid” over the next few months, Carter said.
“All the economic vulnerabilities that have been exposed [during the pandemic] will always be the case even if and when someone comes up with a cure for Covid-19,” Carter said. “Our goal is not to get back to where we were in January. It is about creating a permanent and more resilient American economy.
St Paul has piloted a direct payment program during the pandemic, providing more than 1,200 low-income local families with a one-time payment of $1,000 this spring to help them pay rent or feed their children during the crisis, a he declared.
But Carter said St Paul currently has no money to continue the $1,000 direct payments, even if the pandemic and the economic consequences of the shutdown have not ended. “Cities are in financial crisis,” he said.