The Pandemic Is Forcing Cities to Start Giving People Guaranteed Income

The idea of simply giving people the money they need, to spend how they want, seems to be a popular one during the pandemic.
​Cities across the country are trying different guaranteed income programs to help people through the pandemic.
Cities across the country are trying different guaranteed income programs to help people through the pandemic.

People might’ve already spent their latest pandemic stimulus checks, but the growing “guaranteed income” movement in cities across the country would give certain people cash every month, no strings attached.

The mayor of Oakland, California, announced one of the nation’s largest guaranteed income pilot programs last week. Other parts of the Bay Area, including San Francisco and Marin County, also announced or approved funding for similar initiatives around the same time, joining with cities nationwide that have embarked on the ambitious—but previously far-fetched—effort. 


Increasingly, the idea of simply giving people the money they need, to spend how they want, seems to be a popular one, especially when officials consider its potential to unwind persistent economic and racial inequality. That’s especially the case during the COVID-19 crisis, and its related wave of joblessness.

Such “demonstration projects” could create evidence showing “guaranteed income is a policy that must be adopted at the federal level,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a March 23 video posted to Twitter. 

Last October, Schaaf’s counterpart in Compton, Mayor Aja Brown, told the Los Angeles Times of her city’s similarly massive guaranteed income initiative: “I recognized that there’s a need for additional income, especially with the pandemic resulting in record-high numbers of unemployment throughout the entire country.” 

“This is a great opportunity to address inequalities for Black and brown people and also additional opportunities for upward mobility,” Brown added. Compton’s donor-funded program, called the Compton Pledge, guarantees cash payments for 800 low-income residents for two years.


Such initiatives aren't just in blossoming California, where guaranteed income pilots have become more commonplace, largely due to a successful program in Stockton that managed to improve recipients’ financial stability and job prospects, either. Guaranteed income pilots have been announced or launched in Gary, Indiana; Paterson, New Jersey; and Saint Paul, Minnesota, too. 

The man who kicked it all off in Stockton, former Mayor Michael Tubbs, even founded Mayors for Guaranteed Income, a group that launched during the pandemic and has since grown to include representatives from more than 40 cities. In a statement about Oakland’s pilot program last week, Tubbs said that the city’s initiative “will provide critical financial support to those hardest-hit by systemic inequities, including the pandemic's disproportionate toll on communities of color."


Oakland’s program, called Oakland Resilient Families, pledges $500 monthly payments to 600 low-income families of color, to be used however they want. The initiative is a collaboration between the local Family Independence Initiative, a community organization, and Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, where Schaaf is a founding member, according to a press release. The money is seen as not just a means to help people scrape by but a way to address “systems change, racial equity, and economic mobility,” Schaaf said in a statement.

Oakland Resilient Families will be entirely funded through philanthropic donations, according to its website. It will last 18 months. 

Marin County’s two-year program—which the local board of supervisors voted to contribute $400,000 to last week—will be similarly unrestricted, and will provide $1,000 each month to low-income mothers of color, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The pilot, which will help 125 women, will be run by the Marin Community Foundation.

And in San Francisco, more than 100 artists will soon get $1,000 monthly as part of a newly-announced, six-month program so long as they meet certain income requirements, like making less than $60,900 as a single person, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. What’s more, the city already announced the launch of a pilot program in September to provide approximately 150 Black and Pacific Islander women with $1,000 each month during their pregnancies, and six months postpartum. 


Giving people cash to scrape by during the pandemic isn’t a novel concept. From stalling the eviction process to increasing unemployment benefits, the public health crisis has become a time for officials to get inventive with how they meet the needs of those who, for whatever reason, are unable to do so on their own.

Scores of Americans have received a total of $3,200 in direct payments from the federal government since last April, for example, thanks to stimulus checks and a recognition that people needed quick money to meet their most basic needs. And in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden signed earlier this month, the federal government increased the child tax credit for one year—giving low- and middle-income families a total of $3,000 per kid ages 6 to 17, and $3,600 for each child under the age of 6, according to the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank.


But while efforts like the stimulus checks and the expanded child tax credit have been widely supported, they’ve also been most sorely needed by people of color—some of whom have drained their savings during widespread job loss. And, even after the pandemic abates, people of color might be further behind, for a longer period of time, risking evictions, utility shut-offs, and other consequences that could have devastating impacts on families for generations.

Guaranteed income programs could—at least for some families, in some cities—help ward that reality off. 

The programs aren’t without their detractors, according to USA Today. Some critics believe that the solution should be within the existing social safety net, and worry that such programs would disincentive people from working. However, supporters say the programs aren’t meant to supplant the safety net, but supplement it. 

And, at least in In Hudson, New York, which launched its own basic income program last year to provide 20 randomly selected people with $500 each month for five years, questions about the initiative during one community meeting last August largely centered around how to expand it, according to Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“I’ve actually been surprised by how few skeptics there have been,” Susan Danziger, whose nonprofit, Spark of Hudson, was involved in the program’s creation alongside the nonprofit Humanity Forward, told Stateline. “But everyone sees the potential, especially in the context of the pandemic.”