But while these efforts are generally open to anyone under a certain income threshold, the majority-minority city in the East Bay has designed a pilot to focus on one key factor that its civic leaders say is inextricably tied up with poverty: race.
Launching this spring and summer, the city’s program will distribute $500 monthly payments to a group of randomly selected families for at least a year and a half. To qualify, families must have at least one child and make less than 50% of the area median — about $59,000 annually for a family of three. And they must be Black, Indigenous or otherwise identify as people of color.
“There are huge gaps between people of color and our White residents,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf (D) told The Washington Post. “With the limited resources of this pilot, we would like to understand better how we can understand these disparities as well as address overall poverty.”
The initiative, which will target 600 families, puts her city at the center of a growing discussion over no-strings-attached payments, a concept that dates back several decades — or even longer, according to some proponents — but that may be gaining steam this year like never before.
And Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party and a city that has long been ahead of the curve on racial equity, appears to be one of the first governments to use it to battle the racial wealth gap.
Michael Tubbs, the founder of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a coalition of civic leaders who advocate for such a policy, said this “explicit focus on racial justice” means the program will benefit those who most need it. An effort by Oakland to study equity indicators across the city in 2018 found that Black households on average make about one third as much each year as White households.
“Civil rights has always been about protection not just from police brutality, but from the brutality of poverty,” Tubbs said in a video announcing the Oakland pilot.
As the mayor of Stockton, Calif., about 70 miles east of Oakland, he oversaw the nation’s first guaranteed income program, which began distributing $500 monthly checks to 125 of the city’s residents just over two years ago.
The results appeared promising: Participants were twice as likely to gain full-time employment than others, according to a study published earlier this month by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Knoxville at Tennessee.
In the meantime, several dozen cities — from Jackson, Miss. to Los Angeles and Philadelphia — have committed to trying out the experiment on their own turf. Many have joined under Tubbs’ group,
But the mayors behind these guaranteed income programs say their pilots are not meant to be permanent. Rather, they are aimed at increase pressure on the federal government to adopt a similar initiative in the long-term.
“The federal government is the only one that can provide an entitlement to meet whatever need there is,” Schaaf said. “The rest of us have to balance our budgets. We live in constant uncertainty, much like American families.”
And just like those households, she added, the city’s budget has taken a massive financial hit during the coronavirus pandemic. To fund the guaranteed income pilot, Oakland is drawing upon $6.75 million donations from private foundations.
Oakland’s program also one of the first to examine the role of geography and density in guaranteed income. Half of the recipients will be selected from a tightly condensed area of East Oakland — no more than a couple of census tracts, each about 4,000 people — to receive the monthly checks with no restrictions.
The objective is “to see how the guaranteed income pilot not just creates an impact on the individual families that ate participating, but on the community and surrounding neighborhood,” City Council member Loren Taylor (D) told The Post.
Taylor, who represents one of three city council districts in east Oakland, said this part of the city ranks lower on nearly every metric in the city’s equity index: It has higher unemployment rates, more violence and public safety challenges, and poorer educational outcomes than wealthier neighborhoods.
The concept of guaranteed income has not gone without criticism. Some conservatives have said it would be impossible to afford such a program on a national scale. Others, like former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, have boosted the idea of universal basic income, which sometimes seeks to fully replace safety-net programs with monthly payments.
But to illustrate the importance of both kinds of aid, Schaaf points the story of what happened to one family after Oakland embarked on a similar program several years ago, meant to keep some low-income residents from becoming homeless.
One beneficiary, a man whose developmental disabilities made it impossible to go to laundromats, had lost his job when his washing machine broke. Unable to keep his uniform clean for a service-industry job, the man and his elderly mother were suddenly left without their primary source of income.
So he used his family’s assistance payment not to cover rent, but to fix the washing machine.
“There’s no federal program for washing machines,” Schaaf said, “and that’s the beauty of guaranteed income. … What families need is to chart paths to their own self-sufficiency, and we should trust people with money.”