San Francisco Launches ‘Guaranteed Income’ Pilot Program for Struggling Artists

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An aerial view of an ornate, official building with a large dome at its center. Yellow painted letters in the street in front of the building spell out "defund the police."
A view of San Francisco's City Hall on July 20, 2020, as protesters paint a mural during the nationwide Strike for Black Lives. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A new pilot program will pay struggling San Francisco artists $1,000 a month for six months—with no strings attached.

Administered by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the “Guaranteed Income Pilot” cash relief program, which starts accepting applications on Thursday, March 25, aims to support artists in underserved communities who have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The arts are truly critical to our local economy and are an essential part of our long-term recovery. If we help the arts recover, the arts will help San Francisco recover,” said Breed in a statement. “This new program is an innovative effort to help our creative sector get through this challenging time, and come back even stronger and more resilient than before.”

130 artists will be selected for the pilot, which city officials say is the first of its kind to launch in the U.S. The city of Long Beach and the St. Paul, Minnesota nonprofit Springboard for the Arts also have guaranteed income programs for artists currently under development.

The YBCA-run program for artists is one of several financial relief pilots underway in the Bay Area. San Francisco’s Abundant Birth Project will provide monthly income supplements for Black and Pacific Islander expectant mothers, and part of the $120 million Dream Keeper Initiative allocates $7 million towards guaranteed income to members of the city’s Black and African-American community. Just this week, Oakland and Marin County announced their own guaranteed income programs for low-income residents of color.

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Applicants for the artists’ Guaranteed Income Pilot must meet certain eligibility criteria. They must be 18 or older, have an artistic practice “rooted in a historically marginalized community,” be a resident in one of 13 San Francisco zip codes “determined by the city of San Francisco’s data on areas hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic,” and not exceed a specified income threshold.

Eligible artists will be selected at random for participation in the pilot after applications close on April 15. “We want to make the process as easy as possible,” said YBCA CEO Deborah Cullinan in a phone interview with KQED. Chosen artists can expect to receive their first payments on May 21.

Cullinan said that the pilot should be thought of as a form of “rapid prototyping”—one small step in helping the city of San Francisco think through how it can provide more stability for its creative community.

“Guaranteed income is something we’ve been interested in for a long time,” said Cullinan. “What does it mean to provide economic security not only for artists and their families, but also for the community as a whole? What happens as a result of it? We want to learn from the pilot and leverage the proof towards a longer-term project.”

Cullinan said successful applicants will not be required to do anything in return for the money. But she is hoping many of them will volunteer to complete periodic surveys to help YBCA and San Francisco learn how steady monthly payments can impact their lives. “You can’t demand things of people, but we do need data,” she said.

Guaranteed income programs have been a subject of intense debate in recent years. Advocates tout the positive outcomes of the recent experiment conducted in Stockton, while critics say these programs are just a fancy way of giving grants to special interest groups.

In an interview with KQED, San Francisco comedian Dhaya Lakshminarayanan said even though $1,000 doesn’t go a long way in San Francisco, every little bit helps for artists like her who lost their entire livelihoods when performance spaces shut down last spring.

“It seems like it’s really done in a respectful way to give artists this small boost,” Lakshminarayanan said.

But the comedian said some artists are wary of taking these kinds of handouts because it might affect their ability to claim other important benefits.

“We are trying to just scrape together money from everywhere. So if you’re collecting unemployment or if you’re on Medicaid and your income is above a certain amount, you might get kicked out of Medicaid or increase your tax burden,” she said. “So I would love some coordination among all of the different things like unemployment, Medicaid, food stamps, and so on, to be able to put people at ease that if you take this money, it’s not going to screw you in these other categories.”