San Francisco is becoming increasingly enamored with a new way to help the poor: give them money.
An increasing number of programs aimed at guaranteeing income for certain populations — such as pregnant women — have sprouted up in and around San Francisco in recent years.
Now, city leaders want to better coordinate those programs, collect and review data that will test their efficacy, and plan for their potential expansion under a city-staffed Guaranteed Income Unit.
The people behind this push believe there’s ample evidence that demonstrates that when people are given a boost in the form of unrestricted cash, they benefit by keeping their homes, visiting a doctor, going back to school or getting a better job.
Elected leaders in San Francisco are now urging The City to play a leading role in coordinating these guaranteed income programs.
The Guaranteed Income Advisory Group was established through legislation sponsored by former Supervisor Matt Haney in 2021. Its members — a cross-section of experts and people who have lived in poverty — presented its recommendations to the Board of Supervisors earlier this month, and the board endorsed them in a resolution this week.
The recommendations include The City “quarterback” the various guaranteed income programs that have sprouted up in San Francisco. According to the report authored by the advisory group, guaranteed income programs administered by various nonprofits are “emerging so rapidly that it has become difficult to track and coordinate efforts, creating risk of duplication of effort or unintended missteps.”
In total, the group tallied nearly a dozen guaranteed income programs in San Francisco alone, and more in neighboring areas. They’re funded through a variety of sources, including by The City and through philanthropy.
The advisory group also implored The City in developing and supporting these programs to focus on racial equity and to ensure community voices are included in the process; in other words, don’t build a guaranteed income plan without first connecting with a community to understand its needs.
Beyond existing programs, the working group is pushing The City to develop “structural, sustainable, scalable strategies” that, potentially, could greatly expand the prevalence of universal income in San Francisco and beyond.
“(Guaranteed income) is actually one of the most effective ways of enabling people to overcome the challenges that they’re facing,” said Jim Pugh, co-director of the Universal Income Project and a member of the advisory group. “All the evidence we have says … people generally are struggling because of a situation they are either born into or encountered.”
The obvious concern raised about guaranteed income programs is that recipients could squander the money.
But such waste is uncommon, proponents argue, and it’s actually more financially efficient to hand people cash before they spiral deeper into poverty and become reliant on costly services like homeless shelters and emergency departments.
Miracle Messages launched a pilot program, Miracle Money, that provided 14 recipients, nine of whom were experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area, with $500 a month. At the end of the six-month program, two-thirds had secured stable housing, according to the nonprofit.
“They used the money better than we could have used it for them,” said Kevin Adler, founder and CEO of Miracle Messages.
Adler sees the primary benefit of the advisory group’s recommendations as fostering collaboration in a system that is too often siloed, saying “Let’s come together, let’s actually work with organizations, grassroots initiatives, that normally would be banging their head on their wall” trying to be included, he said.
The concept of a guaranteed income is hardly new.
Former President Richard Nixon proposed federal legislation in 1969, later defeated in the Senate, that would have provided a guaranteed income to all families with children.
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Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang made the idea a cornerstone of his failed campaign. He later helped launch a guaranteed income program in Hudson, New York, providing $500 a month to 25 recipients for the next five years.
In California, Stockton provided a random selection of residents with $500 a month for two years. A study released in 2021, which tracked the first year of the program from 2019 to 2020, found that the 125 residents — all of whom were at or below the area median income — were more than twice as likely to transition from part-time to full-time work.
The Stockton cohort also reported less easily quantifiable benefits, like a reduction in anxiety. And contrary to common belief, the residents didn’t blow the money. Less than 1% was spent on alcohol and tobacco, according to the study.
“We now have so much evidence that actually, all you need to do is give people resources, and the vast majority of the time they will be able to use it effectively,” Pugh said.
Making that support unrestricted reduces barriers, proponents argue.
“It’s really clear and important to us that the notion of ‘unconditional’ is strategically and intentionally a part of the definition,” said Tajel Shah, a member of the advisory group and chief assistant treasurer for the city, during a July hearing on the advisory group’s work.
In San Francisco, The City and several nonprofits have eyed the potential of basic income programs, particularly after the pandemic helped highlight the severe challenges some of its residents face.
The Abundant Birth Project, for example, was launched in 2020 and provides pregnant Black and Pacific Islander mothers — who, along with their children, on average are far more likely to face adverse health outcomes than their white counterparts — with $1,000 per month, six months before and after giving birth.
Amid the pandemic, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts established a guaranteed income program for artists.
“This is more about targeting into areas where people have some of the highest need and highest risk of becoming stricken with poverty,” said Supervisor Ahsha Safai, who has helped spearhead the work.
Safai is excited about an upcoming pilot that provides financial assistance to foster youth as they embark on their independent lives in adulthood with $1,200-a-month stipends, and another program that addresses food insecurity in his district.
Thus far, the myriad programs have been funded on a pilot basis. Part of the work ahead will be to determine not only the efficacy of various guaranteed income programs, but how to sustainably fund them.
Looming over the discussion is a proposed charter amendment that would levy an additional tax on online retailers (primarily Amazon) to fund guaranteed income programs in San Francisco.
The City will also have to ensure that receiving one form of assistance does not disqualify a person from receiving help through another program, the advisory group noted.
“You want this to be something that’s a supplement, you don’t want to make people potentially ineligible for benefits they’re receiving,” Pugh said.
Leaders of the guaranteed income movement see San Francisco as the perfect place to test its efficacy. The City is both a laboratory of new ideas, as well as a bastion of significant income and wealth inequality.
“It is setting an example for other cities,” Pugh said.