The idea of giving Americans money, with no strings attached, has been given a boost by a $15 million ($20.2 million AUD) grant from billionaire Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, which will fund basic income projects across America.
The money is going to Mayors for a Guaranteed Income (MGI), a coalition of 29 mayors across the country who are designing and implementing programs giving monthly sums of cash to some residents to spend however they wish, in a bid to alleviate poverty and systemic racism.
Universal basic income (UBI) is the centuries-old idea of giving people money without conditions so that they have enough income to meet their basic needs. In its purest form, UBI would be truly “universal” and be distributed to every person. However, most pilot programs around the world have focused on subsets of people and are more accurately referred to as basic or guaranteed income programs.
Once thought of as radical, basic income has inched into the mainstream over the past few years. In the US, this was in no small part due to Andrew Yang, whose 2020 Democratic presidential campaign promised a $1,000 monthly check for every American adult.
Around the world ― in Finland, Kenya, India and Canada ― the results of basic income pilots have shown that simply giving people cash can result in a host of benefits, including improved happiness and well-being, better educational outcomes and increased resilience.
COVID-19 and the economic devastation that followed further increased interest in UBI. Americans had a taste of basic income in the form of $1,200 stimulus checks sent early on in the pandemic. (Despite increasingly desperate calls for relief, these were one-off payments and have yet to be repeated.)
Although some policymakers, including Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, have called for forms of basic income to be implemented, there is very little action at the federal level. The majority of Americans are in favour of monthly cash transfers, but most experimentation in the US is happening at the city level and is led by mayors.
Michael Tubbs, the outgoing mayor of Stockton, California, is one of them. Since February 2019, he has been running a basic income program that gives 125 low-income residents $500 a month since Feb. The pilot has seen compelling early results, showing people are using the money as a cushion against income volatility.
After the pandemic hit, Tubbs sought out fellow mayors interested in advocating for basic income across the US and formed Mayors for a Guaranteed Income in June. The initiative was kickstarted with an initial $3 million grant from Dorsey and designed to help implement basic income pilots to gather evidence to prove to the federal government that the policy works.
To get other mayors on board, Tubbs told HuffPost that he “married COVID-19 with the protests, not just against police violence, but the violence of poverty, the violence of racism, the violence of white supremacy, structural violence in our country. And I told the mayors that guaranteed income is a solution that speaks to both of those.”
“As mayors we cannot do a whole guaranteed income in our cities,” he said during a call with reporters in September. “But what we can do is pilots, is test the idea.”
The $15 million Dorsey is giving to MGI will support this aim, helping launch further basic income pilots in cities across the country, and extending and supporting those already in progress. Up to $500,000 is guaranteed to each city whose mayor is part of MGI.
Dorsey’s money comes from #startsmall, an organisation he founded in April with $1 billion of his equity in the payment company Square, which was reported to represent about 28% of his net worth at the time. The organisation, which aims to fund global COVID-19 relief efforts, has UBI as one of its long-term focus areas.
“I think this idea [of UBI] is long overdue,” Dorsey said on Yang’s podcast in May, “and I think the only way that we can change policy is by experimenting and showing case studies of why this works. And a number of other countries have proven small experiments as well, but we have to do it here.”
“We are some 60 years into a war on poverty in America right now. And we have clearly not produced the outcomes that we’ve all desired.”
In addition to Tubb’s program in Stockton, basic income pilots are being implemented in several cities including Saint Paul, Minnesota, where Mayor Melvin Carter’s administration has begun disbursing $500 each month to up to 150 families, using a mix of public and private funding.
“We are some 60 years into a war on poverty in America right now,” Carter told HuffPost. “And we have clearly not produced the outcomes that we’ve all desired ... So the first thing is letting go of our allegiance to status quo approaches.”
In Pittsburgh, Mayor William Peduto is launching a pilot giving 200 families $500 a month for two years, with a focus on families headed by Black women. A new guaranteed income pilot in Compton, California, launched by Mayor Aja Brown, is giving $500 a month to 800 residents for two years. Additional pilots are planned for cities including Los Angeles and Oakland, California; Madison, Wisconsin; Richmond, Virginia; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Tacoma, Washington.
“With these funds we will broaden the reach of this movement,” Carter said in a statement about Dorsey’s $15 million grant, “adding bulk to our evidence base and showing what we mayors already know to be true of our constituents — that guaranteed income is a clear path toward economic and racial justice for Americans and it should be a part of the 2021 social safety net.”
More of the mayors in MGI plan to announce basic income projects in the new year, and Tubbs hopes to expand the organization and push for basic income at the national level. While he praised the work being done in cities, Tubbs was scathing about the absence of federal relief for people suffering from the economic consequences of the pandemic.
“It just can’t be mayors using philanthropic money to do this,” Tubbs said on a call with reporters on Tuesday. “Hunger, economic insecurity, evictions, homelessness, these are all choices, choices that we are making as a society.”
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