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Following Stockton's Lead, Guaranteed Income Programs to Launch in Oakland and Marin County

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A person walks by a boarded-up shop in Oakland on Feb. 12, 2021. Oakland residents of color have borne the economic brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, with higher rates of unemployment and business failure. Oakland Resilient Families, a new initiative, aims to target aid to the most affected families. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Oakland and Marin County this Tuesday became the latest jurisdictions in California to launch a guaranteed income program for hundreds of low-income residents, joining a growing progressive movement around the country that views direct cash payments as a crucial strategy in lifting families out of poverty.

Building on a high-profile guaranteed income experiment conducted in Stockton, the pilot programs in Marin County and Oakland will be among the first in the nation to send aid exclusively to residents of color.

“Our vision is an Oakland that has closed the racial wealth gap, and where all families thrive," Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said at a Tuesday morning press conference. "We believe that guaranteed income is the most transformative policy that can achieve this vision and whose time has come."

A key premise of the basic income experiments is to let residents use the payments however they see fit, bucking the post-welfare reform trend of placing requirements or restrictions around government aid.

"Guaranteed income is based on the belief that those in poverty are best able to identify what they need to escape that poverty," said Oakland City Councilmember Loren Taylor. "If someone is tethered to a life of poverty, we can’t untether them by tying them down with more strings."

The Oakland Resilient Families program will send $500 a month for 18 months to 600 families that identify as Black, Indigenous or as other people of color, chosen at random from a pool of applicants.

Half of the spots will be reserved for families with a household income at or below 50% of the area median income (roughly $65,000 a year for a family of four), with the other half for families earning below 138% of the federal poverty level (about $36,000 annually for a family of four).

Additionally, the participants will be split into two groups: one comprised of East Oakland residents and a separate group made up of residents from other parts of the city. Residents interested in applying for the basic income program can visit the website of Oakland Resilient Families.

The program will be funded by donations, chiefly from the nonprofit Blue Meridian Partners.

Jesús Gerena, CEO of the Family Independence Initiative, an anti-poverty nonprofit, said $6.75 million has been raised so far to begin payments to families this spring.

Gerena affirmed that this initiative, with its explicit focus on racial disparities in a region beset by income inequality, recognizes "the value of our under-resourced communities and their contributions."

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Cash Aid Paired With Social Services

Hours after the Oakland announcement, the Marin County Board of Supervisors signed off on a guaranteed income program for dozens of low-income mothers of color.

On a 5-0 vote, the board agreed to spend $400,000 on a two-year pilot initiative, in partnership with the Marin Community Foundation.

Monthly payments of $1,000 would be sent to 125 women whose children are younger than 18.

Participants will be chosen at random, but program organizers said they are hoping to source candidates from four underserved areas of the county: Marin City, Novato, the Canal area in San Rafael and West Marin.

The novel feature of Marin's program is that the cash aid will be paired with optional wrap-around services for eligible mothers: The county's share of the investment will go to services such as job training and placement.

The county, along with MCF, is currently ironing out the details on how eligible residents can apply.

“We are still probably in the tail end of the design phase," said Barbara Clifton Zarate, director for economic opportunity at MCF.

"The opportunity to test out and be part of new social policy is very exciting and it's the right thing for Marin County to do," said Supervisor Stephanie Moulton-Peters.

As in Oakland, the Marin payments are financed by significant private investment, mitigating any potential spending concerns on the part of local officials.

But Jonathan Logan, vice president of community engagement at MCF said the long-term goal is for the public sector to take an increasing role in funding guaranteed income.

"Philanthropy is at its best when it's testing out things, providing laboratories, if you will, to come up with great social policy or proof points that ultimately become policy," he said.

'An Investment Directly to Our People'

Proposals to funnel basic income payments to residents have been floated for decades — including by the Black Panther Party — but this policy idea gathered momentum when the city of Stockton took on a two-year experiment of sending $500 payments to residents.

Researchers found that recipients in Stockton had increased rates of employment, along with better physical and emotional health outcomes. And the cash payments seemed to stabilize fluctuations in household incomes from month to month.

The pilot in Stockton was spearheaded by the city's former mayor, Michael Tubbs, who has founded the advocacy group Mayors for a Guaranteed Income to encourage the policy's adoption across the country.

The promise of a universal basic income was a central plank of Democrat Andrew Yang's run for president in 2020. And the American Rescue Plan Act recently signed into law by President Biden relies on forms of direct aid including $1,400 checks for individuals and a child tax credit for parents.

Tubbs, who joined Mayor Schaaf Tuesday for the announcement, said, "We truly believe the most important investment we can make as a government is an investment directly to our people."

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