Los Angeles could become largest US city to trial universal basic income

·4-min read

Los Angeles may soon become the largest city in the US to introduce a universal basic income (UBI) program, joining its neighbors to the north – including Stockton, Oakland and San Francisco – in offering some residents a monthly cash boost with no strings attached.

The $24m LA program, introduced as part of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s budget proposal, released on Tuesday, would provide $1,000 a month to 2,000 families for a year if passed by the city council. Like most other UBI plans, those given the funds can use the money however they please.

Related: Californians on universal basic income paid off debt and got full-time jobs

“We’re betting that one small but steady investment for Angeleno households will pay large dividends for health and stability across our city and light a fire across our nation,” Garcetti tweeted on Monday, announcing the new plan with a nod to Dr Martin Luther King who, as part of the civil rights movement, called for guaranteed income programs that would work to eradicate poverty. “We’re showing what it takes to fulfill Dr King’s call for a basic income once and for all.”

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Garcetti is not alone. He is part of a 41-member network of city leaders across the nation, called the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a group founded by the former Stockton mayor Michael Stubbs that advocates for greater racial and gender equity through monthly payments. Stockton was the first city to roll out a UBI program, and the success of its experiment has encouraged more mayors to sign on.

Oakland, which announced its new “Oakland Resilient Families” program last month, is planning to provide $500 a month for 18 months to families that meet a certain financial threshold, funded by private donors. Across the Bay in San Francisco, public officials have proposed a pilot to offer guaranteed monthly income of $1,000 for six months to 130 eligible artists who were hit hard by the Covid crisis. In Marin county, 125 low-income mothers of color will soon be able to participate in a $400,000 two-year pilot, providing $1,000 in monthly payments, and in Compton 800 residents will receive $1,000 a month for two years.

Similar programs are also being considered in LA county districts, including a South LA proposal, which will probably be rolled out in the coming months, that would fund 500 single-parent households with $1,000 a month, in addition to the monies provided in the city-wide plan.

The idea is not without detractors. “A UBI would redefine the relationship between individuals, families, communities and the state by giving government the role of provider,” Oren Cass, the executive director of the conservative thinktank American Compass wrote in a National Review op-ed, arguing that the funds undercut work ethic.

Ideas like this may be what has spurred American skepticism of guaranteed income. A 2019 gallup poll found that only 43% of Americans support the idea, compared with 77% of adults in the UK and 75% of Canadians. The following year, even in the midst of the pandemic and record levels of unemployment, a survey from Pew Research Center came to similar results.

Roughly 54% of US adults polled responded that they oppose guaranteed income from the federal government. Still, Pew found, the numbers varied considerably among different demographics. The majority of Black (73%) and Hispanic (63%) adults are in favor of the program, and 63% of those in low-income households expressed their support.

But, with more cities signing on, there is also a growing body of evidence that the payments do lead to progress. The first major program, launched in Stockton in 2019, actually helped participants find full-time jobs, reduced income volatility and increased security and wellbeing. With no strings attached, recipients spent 40% on food, 25% on merchandise, and 12% on utilities.

“In Stockton, like much of America, there’s this puritan ethos of, ‘I work hard. If you don’t work, you shouldn’t eat,’” former mayor Stubbs, who now serves as an adviser to California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, told Bloomberg. “And [we’re] really illustrating to people, no, just like you there are people who are working hard who are struggling – not because they’re lazy, but because wages haven’t kept up with inflation, wages haven’t kept up with costs.”

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