Advocates pilot new kind of income support

Name one physically demanding job and it’s probably on Kelvin Marshall’s resume. He’s been in the workforce for decades, but struggled to keep up with San Diego’s extreme cost of living when the pandemic hit.

The single dad was selected earlier this year for a scheme experimenting with another type of help known as guaranteed income. Unlike most other forms of welfare, this one can be spent on what it wants.

The Marshalls are one of 150 local families in the pilot project run by San Diego for Every Child, a nonprofit organization sponsored by the Jewish Family Service. These households earn less than $53,000 a year and have a child under 12. They must also reside in Encanto, Paradise Hills, San Ysidro, or National City — ZIP codes with high levels of poverty, food insecurity, and environmental health issues.

Marshall used his $500 a month to buy backpacks for his daughters as well as clothes, shoes and food. Direct cash payments did not alleviate all of the financial pressure on the household, but it certainly helped.

Kelvin Marshall is one of the participants in a new guaranteed income pilot program in San Diego County. /Photo by Jesse Marx

“We are not living beyond our means,” he said. “We just live where we’re supposed to be.”

This non-punitive approach goes against the way public benefits are traditionally managed in the United States. But unlike universal basic income — a better-known proposal that proposes sending checks to everyone, regardless of demographics in the face of an increasingly automated workforce — guaranteed income programs target groups specific people.

For now, this is essentially a research project, and scaling it up to government level remains an open question. But in the meantime, it is expanding to include more communities.

The pilot project began in March and is expected to last two years. In addition to providing short-term financial support, it will add to a growing body of data from the University of Pennsylvania on the health, education, and economic impacts of cash assistance programs as they unfold. become more common.

Income Movement, another Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit, has more than 80 programs in the United States active or in the planning stages. Stockton is one of the best-known examples, but the idea goes back decades. Since the 1980s, Alaska has distributed energy dividends to its inhabitants.

Although the size and scope of the programs differ, their underlying goal is to make social assistance – often intrusive and humiliating, in the ostensible but dubious name of stamping out fraud – more accessible.

Restrictions on social assistance programs can also be simply administratively onerous. Under federal rules, for example, SNAP recipients cannot purchase hot or ready-to-eat meals from grocery stores or restaurants. This is not the case for homeless, disabled, or elderly CalFresh recipients, but only if the funds are spent at an authorized business.

Proponents of guaranteed income attempt to end all of this by creating a distribution model based on trust and the belief that those in need know best how to provide for their own families.

A survey of the first three months of the guaranteed income pilot project in San Diego shows that recipients spent 41% of the money on food. Another 23% offset retail costs, 20% went to transportation, and 9% was spent on utilities and other household expenses. Nearly half of recipients are Latino and more than a quarter are black. About two-thirds are women.

Sacramento lawmakers, including Senator Ben Hueso, launched the program with $1.4 million in the state budget. Two more are in preparation.

Last week, the County Board of Supervisors set aside $7.5 million in federal stimulus funds to launch a second pilot project. Once contracts are signed, it will provide cash assistance to parents or guardians who have been reported for general neglect, which means the child lacks basic things like food, clothing and shelter. Often the child is left unsupervised because the caregiver is at work.

There are obvious moral and ethical reasons for keeping families together, supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer told me, but by intervening early, the county will also keep children out of the foster system and save money. money to the Department of Child Protective Services. In other words, it is thought, the county is spending a little up front rather than a lot in the future to repair the damage to a depleted home.

Or as she put it, “An ounce of prevention is better than cure.”

A third pilot is taking shape at the Café X cooperative café: By Any Beans Necessary. Known as the Black Women’s Resiliency Project, it will test the importance of income as a social determinant in black households. By and large, people of color were excluded from the social democratic reforms of 20th century America that helped today’s older white communities create generational wealth.

“Centering women, black women in particular, in the economy helps us build economic security,” said Khea Pollard, director of San Diego for Every Child and co-owner/founder of the cafe.

Seed funding for this program comes from the Alliance Healthcare Foundation, which sees a link between racial income disparities and health care in general, caused by lives of stress. Studies have shown, for example, that black and indigenous women experience much higher maternal and infant mortality rates than their white counterparts. An increase of around 10% in income during pregnancy led to a reduction in low birth weight and premature births.

Despite the link between material support and childcare, a common question Alliance Healthcare Foundation executive director Sarah Lyman said she’s heard from philanthropists is “Will this not incentivize not people to work less? »

Evidence suggests otherwise. The Stockton recipients continued to be employed and used the extra money each month as a buffer to go back to school or seek better jobs. Employment actually increased by 12%.

Another common question Lyman says he asks is: why doesn’t the government fully fund a guaranteed income program and what happens when it ends? So far, pilots under the Jewish Family Service umbrella have drawn from a mix of public and private sources, which is why Catalyst of San Diego & Imperial Counties, a network of funders, has organized a tour of the various programs last month. It was there that I met Marshall and others, including representatives of philanthropic groups and governments.

The most immediate problem facing guaranteed income funders, however, is how payments are classified by government agencies. California considers direct cash transfers unearned income, which means they count against a family’s overall assets and may render the applicant ineligible for other benefits.

Melissa Perez, a full-time community college student and mother, said she recently reapplyed for CalWorks, but the county deducted $500 — the amount of her monthly guaranteed income payment — from her allowance. global. She said officials were hostile when she appealed.

“I’m not trying to rob anyone,” she said.

The county, according to communications director Michael Workman, requested a waiver from the state so that what happened to Perez would not happen in the long term. In an email, he said guaranteed income recipients should be aware of “potential unintended impacts on eligibility for public benefit programs.”

In addition to bureaucratic obstacles, there are also political considerations. The average annual family income of participants in the first pilot project is approximately $30,000. Many of these people are in minimum-wage jobs and so it could be argued that a cash payment does not fundamentally change their employment relationships – indeed, the transfers allow employers who do not pay a living wage to get out of the job. affair.

I threw the criticism at a few of the advocates I met on the tour and they all told me essentially the same thing: yes, there is tension with the labor movement and income programs base more generally, but you can give cash assistance to low-income people while empowering them in the workplace. It is not an or/or.

Stacey Rutland, founder and president of the Income Movement, pointed to research in Stockton showing that a significant number of people who received cash assistance moved from part-time to full-time work. Some had done informal work that is not easily organized. Some bought a car and took a better job a little further. Others bought a nice suit for an interview.

“It’s just an opportunity to support a very wide range of members of society who are navigating the realities of their lives,” she said. “It gives them autonomy and the freedom to cover the things they need.”

Similarly, Chris Olsen, chief of staff of the Jewish Family Service, told me that cash assistance and raising minimum income through wages are both laudable but separate goals from what they are trying to achieve. accomplish here.

“Guaranteed income programs are on the way and they are fast and help people in need…filling the gaps in existing social safety net programs,” he said. “One does not deny the need of the other.”

Perez said food insecurity was a real issue at home and she came across the pilot while looking for help online after losing her job. At first, she only told a select group of close friends and they kept telling her how lucky she was to have been selected.

“How lucky am I?” she replied. “I was hungry and had nothing to eat.”

Marshall had a different reaction.

He said his friends upset him because he always wanted something for nothing. He initially felt guilty, but the person who helped him fill out the application pointed out all the jobs he’s had in the past 32 years – cleaning floors and carpets, working in warehouses and on construction sites.

“That’s what you contributed to,” he recalled, telling the social worker. “And now that you need it, you have the right to come and see if you can get it.”