Oakland launches one of nation's largest guaranteed income pilots; 600 families to get $500 a month

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and other leaders on Tuesday announced the framework for one of the nation’s largest guaranteed income pilots that will distribute monthly payments to hundreds of Oakland families.

Calling it a historic moment, Schaaf said that 600 families will be able to receive $500 a month for 18 months with no strings attached.

The roughly $6.7 million will all be coming from the philanthropic organization, Blue Meridian Partners; no taxpayer money will be used. Applicants can learn more here. 

Families can apply later this spring and they will be randomly selected from the applicant pool as long as the families meet the basic income requirements. Oakland Resilient Families is not a first-come-first-served program and is open to undocumented residents and unsheltered families. The program is a partnership with the Family Independence Initiative and the national Mayors for a Guaranteed Income.

Schaaf said she hoped checks would be in the families' hands by spring and summer. Families can participate in surveys and interviews, but they don't have too. 

Despite the good news, Schaaf said she knew that the money was hardly enough to make a real dent in poverty. The money is intended to narrow Oakland's racial income gap, where the median African-American income is less than $50,000 a year and the median white income is more than $100,000. 

To be eligible, families must be low-income and identify as Black, indigenous or people of color. The first area targeted will be in East Oakland and the next area will be broader Oakland, explained Jesus Gerena, the CEO of the Family Independence Initiative.

Gerena said that to qualify for the checks, people must be earning at or below 50% of the area median income, which is about $59,000 per year per family of three. But he said half the spots are reserved for very low income earning below 138% of the federal poverty level, which is about $30,000 a year. 

It's not clear what will happen when the program ends and if and how this money would be extended through any other means. 

The idea isn’t new, but it’s having a revival across the U.S. after some mayors launched small, temporary programs across the country in a coordinated campaign to convince Congress to adopt a national guaranteed income program.

Supporters say the goal is to show that a pilot, funded by philanthropy, can have positive outcomes that can then become new policies.

A guaranteed minimum income is defined as a plan set up by a government to provide every person the guarantee of an income of a certain level.

Marin County was poised to enact a similar program on Tuesday as well. 

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the initiative comes in the wake of Stockton’s program, which provides $500 every month to 125 people. Launched by former Mayor Michael Tubbs, who will also be at the news conference, Stockton led one of the first universal basic income programs in the U.S. Tubbs lost his re-election in 2020.

 An independent review found that after one year of getting the money, 40% of recipients in Stockton had full-time jobs compared with 28% before the program started.

"I'm hella proud of Oakland," Tubbs said at the Zoom news conference on Tuesday. 

Last year, Tubbs formed Mayors for a Guaranteed Income Coalition, a group committed to creating a guaranteed income program. The coalition includes mayors from Los Angeles, Pittsburg, Atlanta and Oakland.

The intention behind the payment is to provide enough to cover the basic cost of living and provide financial security. The concept is also seen as a way to offset job losses caused by technology.

Tubbs said that in his experience, the extra money helped recipients work more, spend more and lead healthier lives. The cash allowed them to hire a nanny so they could get to their jobs and feel less stressed. 

The Chronicle reports that San Francisco is considering a similar program, voting in December to begin studying a pilot program for between 500 and 1,000 residents.

The idea of a guaranteed income dates to the 18th century. The U.S. government experimented with it in the 1960s and 1970s when Republicans Donald Rumsfeld, later a defense secretary, and Dick Cheney, the future vice president, oversaw four programs across the country during the Nixon administration.

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. said a guaranteed income would abolish poverty.

Those studies concluded the money did not stop people from working, causing Nixon to recommend expanding the program. But it never got through Congress.

Decades later, proponents are trying again, only this time it’s led by progressive mayors.

A form of guaranteed income could take effect for many parents this year as part of the latest federal stimulus package. Congress expanded the child tax credit, with the goal of giving many parents monthly payments of up to $300 per month. Those payments are temporary.

In California, a proposal by Assemblyman Evan Low to give $1,000 a month to adults with certain incomes could cost up to $129 billion annually — more than half the state’s total budget — paid for by a new 1% tax on incomes above $2 million. Low said that bill is unlikely to pass this year, but he said his goal is to get people comfortable with the idea.

"The initial shock seems to wear off the more people are educated and realize the benefits of having more control over their lives," Low said.

Critics, including labor unions, worry such expensive programs could force the elimination of other safety net programs, like Social Security and food stamps. But Schaaf said she is unapologetic that "the social safety net programs must remain."

"We believe that those safety net programs should not go away," Schaaf said, "but should be supplemented with unconditional cash that gives families the dignity and flexibility to meet their needs." 

Associated Press reporter Adam Beam contributed to this report.