Across the country, mayors of cities both large and small, of all races and ethnic backgrounds, grew tired of the consequences of local and nationwide social and economic issues. Gradually, they joined a cohort of municipal leaders experimenting with the idea that everyone deserves a universal income.
From Chelsea, Massachusetts to Compton, California, mayors have joined an initiative that gives a modest-sized selection of residents a monthly stipend. Though it is in its pilot phase, the program comes at a time when many Americans need it the most.
“I want residents to be empowered by the greatness from where they came,” said Compton’s Mayor Aja Brown in a release about the city’s universal income initiative.
In April, Mayor Brown announced that the city has been giving 800 residents between $300 to $800 a month as part of its guaranteed income program since January of this year. The largest universal basic income program to date, the cash transfer initiative is designed to curb gross wealth inequities that spiked even more during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The pandemic has proven that for many families, $500 can be the difference between staying sheltered or losing your home, buying groceries or going hungry, and that degree of vulnerability is unacceptable,” said Richmond, Virginia’s Mayor Levar Stoney who joined the collective of mayors in September 2020.
Newark, New Jersey is another city that implemented it’s version of guaranteed income with a “no strings attached and no work requirements,” incentive.
“We must emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with [a] new purpose, new vision, and new ideas to transform our community and truly improve the quality of life of our residents,” said Newark’s Mayor Ras Baraka. “Here we have an opportunity to directly empower and strengthen hundreds of lives immediately, while also demonstrating how to do so to the entire nation.”
Starting in May, the city aims to give 400 participants $6,000 per year for two years. To study the impact of the frequency of disbursements, 50 percent will get payments on a bi-weekly basis, and the remaining 50 percent will receive payments twice yearly.
“In gearing up to launch this program, so many residents I have connected with are eager about a program that will help them get back on their feet and participate in the local economy,” said Hawwa Muhammad, Program Manager of The Newark Movement for Economic Equity.
The people’s income
The guaranteed income program started as an idea in 2017, from Michael D. Tubbs, who was the newly elected mayor of Stockton, California, a San Francisco suburb. He asked a simple question. What happens if you supplement household incomes with a no-strings attached stipend?
The youngest mayor to be elected in a major U.S. city received both praise and criticism. It was quite hard for a capitalistic-centric economy to give away free money. But, Mayor Tubbs used the principles of Martin Luther King Jr. along with the past support of economist Milton Friedman, the Black Panther Party, and even President Richard Nixon. When people have a basic income to meet their daily needs they are productive citizens.
But, detractors hypothesized that the initiative would attract freeloaders who would siphon from the system. The unspoken underlying image is that of the Ronald Reagan myth of a single, Black mother who is a welfare queen and exploits the system. But, two administrations before Ronald Reagan, a Republican president, believed in universal income.
President Richard Nixon proposed to give all poor households a $1,600-a-year stipend along with food stamps. The Family Assistance Plan proposal died in the Senate, but was a way that Nixon attempted to address a then growing wealth gap. Who would America be if that was done? We don’t know, but Tubbs pushed for it in the agricultural city in California.
Tubbs moved forward in 2019. Under the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), the program randomly selected 125 residents to give $500 a month for 24 months.
Speed up, almost two years later, the pilot program proved to be successful. The results showed that employment rose for participants, reduced feelings of anxiety and depression, as well as, decreased the fluctuation of housing security in a city where encroaching Silicon Valley developers began to sniff out.
Magdelana, a participant in Stockton’s cash transfer program said that the money went to food and medicine. A retired CNA and former SEIU organizer who is now caring for her husband who suffered a series of strokes, Magdalena who also has a disability said “my disability [insurance] together with the SEED [payments] I’m putting . . . together [pays] for my rent.”
Another participant, Jovan, who is married with three kids, talked about how the money helped him continue to work. “One of our vehicles broke down. It need[ed] a head gasket. So that was pretty expensive and it helped to have the extra $500…[otherwise] the car would have just been sitting until we were able to save enough to fix it . . . it would have made it a whole lot difficult to get to work.”
More than a Black thing, its a people’s service
Stockton is a racially mixed community, but those who occupy the lowest economic stratums are African Americans and Latinos. Although Mayor Tubbs lost in November 2020, the legacy of his radical approach in changing politics expanded outside of Stockton. To date, over 50 mayors have implemented some type of universal basic income.
“One data point that we fail to recognize is wherever you have high poverty, you have high crime,” said Jackson, Mississippi Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba who is making drastic reform in Mississippi, including guaranteed income. “And the communities that you recognize for having low poverty, you know what they have in common? They have a higher average household income and don’t deal with as many of the social traumas that we deal with in communities that are facing poverty on the level that we are.”
Reducing crime is just one of the issues in the cities that are participating. After the shuttering of the US during the COVID-19 pandemic, many cities across the board must rebuild many parts of its infrastructure. According to the United States Conference of Mayors, there was an 8.8 percent drop in Gross Metro Product or a “$1.45 trillion drop in metro economic output, or a loss of $14,700 per metro household” in 2020.
In New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Catrell said at a press conference that 44,000 New Orleanians were unemployed during the pandemic. “We need rapid and responsive solutions now; this is the time to invest directly in our people.”
Embedded in the wealth gap is race. “Nothing helps a struggling family like money in the pocket, and nowhere is that more apparent than among Black Americans — who are more likely to be unemployed but less likely to get unemployment benefits,” said Mayor Catrell.
Race and the wealth gap is also present in middle-America. “A lot of our neighbors, our family members, continue to struggle with economic insecurity every day,” Gary, Indiana’s Mayor Jerome Prince pointed out after bringing up the statistic that a “Black worker is 20% less than that of his white counterpart, [and a] Latino worker makes 35% less.”
While all cities have representation of residents of color, most urban municipalities in the bold initiative are predominantly white. However, a high number of African American mayors (45%) representing predominantly Black and majority white metros have signed on. White mayors (49%), Latinos (4%), and East Asian (2%) are represented, while 17 percent are women.
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