Universal basic income has been tested repeatedly. It works. Will America ever embrace it?


The extraordinary success and thorny politics of a bold policy idea.

From left, former Stockton Calif., mayor Michael Tubbs; Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott; guaranteed-income advocate Nika Soon-Shiong.
From left, former Stockton Calif., mayor Michael Tubbs; Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott; guaranteed-income advocate Nika Soon-Shiong. (Washington Post photo illustration. Photos: Scott by Kenneth K. Lam/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service/Getty Images; others by Ian Maddox. Check by IRS.)

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In January 2019, Zohna Everett was sitting in an airport when her phone rang. On the other end of the line, a voice informed her that she had been randomly chosen to receive $500 a month as part of something called the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration.

When Everett had first heard about SEED a few weeks earlier, she’d wondered if it might be a scam, as things that sound too good to be true often are. Her pastor assured her that it was real — that 125 residents of poor neighborhoods in Stockton, Calif., would receive money as part of a groundbreaking experiment. When she got the call, Everett thought she was receiving a one-time payment, which was thrilling enough. Then the woman on the phone told her she’d receive $500 every month for a year and a half, with no strings attached. She nearly collapsed from joy right there in the airport.

Suddenly, Everett — who in 2018 had lost her job as a Department of Defense logistics specialist, had subsequently tried to make ends meet by driving for DoorDash, then had taken out significant unsubsidized loans to attend college online in a bid to improve her employment prospects — saw a path back to stability. She would be able to cover her car payments and the rent, to keep her phone on without giving up her monthly tithe to her church.

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For Mayor Michael Tubbs, that was exactly the point. Since childhood, Tubbs had watched his mom and his friends struggle with everyday expenses while receiving only minimal help from the government in Stockton, one of the poorest cities in the country, which sits in California’s Central Valley. He theorized that a relatively small guaranteed income — just $6,000 a year per recipient, enough to cover the occasional emergency expense or supplement a minimum-wage salary — would single-handedly eliminate the insecurity that governed the lives of many poor Stockton residents. And so, with funds and guidance from the nonprofit Economic Security Project, he created a pilot program — one of the first of its kind in the country. His goal was as simple as it was ambitious: to run a demonstration project so successful that national politicians would have no choice but to consider adopting guaranteed income as national policy.

Sitting in a Stockton Starbucks nearly three years later, a soft-spoken Everett remembered nearly every detail of that fateful phone call from SEED. Swaddled in a white puffer coat on an unseasonably cold day, her hair in a low bun, she looked younger than her 51 years as she cradled a caramel Frappuccino and choked up as she described the immediate impact the payments had on her life. She quit driving for DoorDash, which gave her the time to find a job as a factory worker at Tesla’s plant in Fremont, 60 miles from Stockton. She was able to escape a dysfunctional marriage and move into her own home. “For me, it was a steppingstone. It got me to where I was okay by myself,” she says. “It was right on time. Everything in me was just like, ‘Oh, thank you so much, Lord.’ ”

The SEED program was scheduled to end in the summer of 2020, but its founders secured additional donations to fund an extra six months to get people through the worst days of the pandemic. That was another lifesaver for Everett, who was diagnosed with a severe case of covid-19 and struggled with lingering symptoms, leaving her unable to work for most of that year. Fortunately, the $500 a month from SEED, plus disability payments, proved to be enough to pay her bills.

If you just learned about guaranteed income in the past few years, chances are it was from the presidential campaign of Andrew Yang, who got a lot of attention for his proposal that the government offer $1,000 monthly payments to all Americans. But versions of this concept had been circulating for decades among academics and progressive activists. And as the country shut down in the early days of the pandemic, the conditions appeared ripe to try something new, something radical. Pilot programs launched in Los Angeles, in New Orleans, in Denver, but also in historically less progressive cities like Birmingham, Ala.; Columbia, S.C.; and Gainesville, Fla. In March 2020, even a vast majority of congressional Republicans backed a $2 trillion stimulus bill that included unconditional cash payments for tens of millions of Americans. Since then, the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income coalition, which grew out of SEED, has swelled to more than 90 members and three dozen programs; a $15 million donation from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey helped fund many of the pilots.

Now, though, as the country emerges from the pandemic, the guaranteed income movement sits at a crossroads. The pilot programs have created scores of stories like Everett’s about how a small amount of money led to massive change in a recipient’s life. And a growing body of research based on the experiments shows that guaranteed income works — that it pulls people out of poverty, improves health outcomes, and makes it easier for people to find jobs and take care of their children. If empirical evidence ruled the world, guaranteed income would be available to every poor person in America, and many of those people would no longer be poor.

But empirical evidence does not rule the world, and it is far from clear that there is a political path forward for guaranteed income on a large scale. The city-level experiments cannot last forever: Stockton’s lapsed in early 2021, a few months after Tubbs lost his reelection bid to a Republican successor who showed no interest in trying to keep SEED going. On Capitol Hill, too, political momentum for handing out cash has waned. At the end of 2021, an extension of the expanded child tax credit — which was seen by many advocates as a key steppingstone to guaranteed income — was blocked by a Democrat representing the state with the sixth-highest poverty rate in the country.

Early in the pandemic, some in the guaranteed-income movement had begun to whisper about accelerating the timeline for taking their efforts nationwide. America’s most progressive social policies have always grown out of economic crises, so maybe covid would bring about a guaranteed-income policy in the next few years. But the failure of the expanded federal child tax credit diminished some of that optimism; many of those same advocates are now looking toward the long game. “You have to be willing to fight for something to the end,” says Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who recently launched a guaranteed-income experiment, “even if it doesn’t happen, even if you only push it a few feet further, even if it means that you die doing it.”

Without a radical solution — like, say, giving people money with no strings attached — America will continue to be home to one of the worst rates of income inequality of any rich nation in the world. And from city to city, there is massive energy and momentum to keep expanding this experiment. But true believers also harbor a sense of anxiety about what the future holds. “I’m worried,” says Sean Kline, the associate director of Stanford University’s Basic Income Lab, “that these guaranteed income demonstrations are going to sunset and then it’s just going to go quiet.”

For as long as America has had a poverty problem — which is to say, for its entire history — a small group of dreamers has proposed guaranteed income as a solution. The idea dates to the year the country was founded: Thomas Paine proposed a type of basic income in his 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense.” In the mid-20th century, it gained traction among Black American thinkers: In 1966, the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program demanded “employment or a guaranteed income” for everyone. A year later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his last book — “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” — that government aid programs all have a “common failing: they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else. I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

The first official proposal for a federal basic income program, though, came not from a paragon of progressivism, but from Richard Nixon. In 1969, Nixon introduced the Family Assistance Plan, which would have provided additional cash to poor families through a negative income tax — cutting checks to the poorest Americans instead of them paying the government — of $1,600 (about $13,000 today) for a family of four. The proposal was motivated by Nixon’s desire to replace the welfare system, which was unpopular with White blue-collar voters, but it never made it out of the Senate Finance Committee.

Many skeptical politicians and voters feared that giving people cash would allow them to quit their jobs, stop looking for work or work less. Around the same time, a series of negative-income-tax experiments benefiting about 7,500 people in six states appeared to confirm those concerns: In Seattle and Denver, where the two largest programs took place, married men worked an average of 7 percent fewer hours after three years of the program, while married and single women worked 17 percent fewer hours. And while researchers didn’t look at any other measures of stability — whether participants were more likely to seek medical care, for example, or whether their children missed fewer days of school — they did observe a modest increase in the divorce rate. Those two factors were enough to destroy widespread interest in guaranteed-income experiments for several decades.

Over time, however, interpretations of the 1970s experiments have morphed. Participants don’t seem to have dropped out of the labor force entirely, suggesting that the money may have given them the luxury of waiting a little longer for the right job to come around instead of rushing into the first available option. And working less sometimes means getting more education, which is almost always a net positive for the economy. An uptick in divorces can be a good thing too: Studies show that financial insecurity is a major contributor to keeping women in failing relationships, as in Everett’s case. In retrospect, the legacy of the first significant guaranteed-income pilots was a whole lot of complicated questions and limited information with which to answer them.

If empirical evidence ruled the world, guaranteed income would be available to every poor person in America, and many would no longer be poor. But empirical evidence does not rule the world.

Meanwhile, the concept of conditional cash-transfer programs — in other words, paying poor people for desirable behavior — was gaining steam in middle-income countries like Mexico and Brazil. In 2007, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg launched a program called Opportunity NYC, which rewarded parents for tasks like taking their children to the doctor and completing job-training courses. The experiment had a moderate positive effect on families’ overall finances but did not boost academic performance among elementary-schoolers or increase families’ likelihood to seek preventive medical care, researchers found. Bloomberg did not extend the program when it expired in 2010.

Among many poverty scholars and activists, conditional cash transfers are seen as a step in the right direction, but only a small one. To maximize the impact on poor people’s lives, they say, money must be a right, not a reward, because that’s the only way to empower people to make their own choices. “There are positive outcomes from conditional cash, there are positive outcomes from unconditional cash,” Kline says. “But I think for me, making it conditional misses a really fundamental value around trust, dignity, agency, freedom.”

The word “dignity” comes up a lot among guaranteed-income advocates. Research shows that the vast majority of people don’t “waste” cash on vices like drugs and alcohol, but rather use even small amounts to improve their life circumstances dramatically. In a 2019 working paper, Nobel Prize-winning development economist Abhijit Banerjee and two co-authors concluded that the distribution of unconditional cash in low-income countries had positive effects on “income, assets, savings, borrowing, total expenditure, food expenditure, dietary diversity, school attendance, test scores, cognitive development, use of health facilities, labor force participation, child labor migration, domestic violence, women’s empowerment, marriage, fertility, and use of contraception, among others.”

Banerjee is part of the research team studying the world’s largest basic-income program, which is midway through a 12-year run across 300 rural villages in Kenya. For about 5,000 people, that means an extra $22 a month for more than a decade. Thus far, the researchers have found, participants have been less likely to get sick or go hungry, and more likely to start a business.

In the United States, which has the world’s largest gross domestic product, the basic-income calculus is different than in places like Kenya, where a significant minority of people live on less than a dollar a day. But America has its own unique factors, like that inequality rate and a history of racist policies that have left a disproportionate number of people of color at the bottom of the income scale. Indeed, Tubbs and his counterparts frame basic income as something akin to reparations — a way to alleviate harm done to marginalized people by decades of biased and ineffective policy. The SEED recipients were struggling to survive because society had let them down, Tubbs argues, and the conventional methods of helping them were paternalistic and inadequate.

In Baltimore, where more than 1 in 5 residents live below the federal poverty line, a new guaranteed-income pilot gives $1,000 a month to 200 recipients, all of them parents in high-crime neighborhoods. “We’re like the birthplace of racial redlining, right?” Scott says. “You’re not going to erase inequality, inequity that was caused by policy, without creating policy to do the opposite.”

The notion of guaranteed income as a government-backed corrective for decades of racist policies has spread to dozens of cities, many led by young, Black mayors. Scott, 38, consults regularly with St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, 50, whose city launched a guaranteed-income pilot in December 2021. St. Paul, Minn., Mayor Melvin Carter, 43, serves as co-chair of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, and is a mentor to Tubbs, 32. According to Tubbs, guaranteed-income programs in Columbia, S.C.; Shreveport, La.; and Atlanta were the result of a Black mayors’ group text shortly after George Floyd’s murder in which he evangelized for King’s approach to solving urban poverty, before sending everyone a copy of “Where Do We Go From Here.”

It’s no coincidence that these are the people plotting the future of guaranteed income in America, Scott argues. Many of them grew up in families that would have benefited from guaranteed-income programs. “We’re the first group of elected folks who actually lived through all of the s—,” he said, looking up from his phone for a rare moment during a 30-minute interview at Baltimore City Hall and drawing out the vowel sound in “lived.” “We lived through crack and heroin. We lived through zero tolerance. So all the stuff that folks are now talking about, we understand it in a way that no one else will.”

The most basic objection to guaranteed-income programs is about cost. Providing $1,000 a month to every American regardless of income — which some scholars argue would make the policy more palatable than one targeted to people in poverty — would cost $3.1 trillion a year, nearly half the federal government’s entire budget in 2021.

And yet, the adage that it is expensive to be poor applies not just to individuals, but to their governments. A mountain of evidence shows how tightly income inequality correlates with crime rates, education levels, drug abuse, incarceration, intimate-partner violence, and physical and mental health, which together cost billions upon billions of tax dollars. Numerous studies, for example, have found it would be cheaper to give homes to unhoused people than it is to cover all the costs associated with allowing them to stay on the streets, but progressives have faced an uphill climb to convince policymakers and voters that providing free housing is a worthwhile strategy. While there isn’t yet research on the potential economic benefits of guaranteed income specifically, studies of similar initiatives have shown that pulling people out of poverty generates a huge increase in tax revenue as well as savings on public assistance programs.

First, though, the guaranteed-income movement had to show that its idea worked at all. When the current wave of experiments kicked off, the goal was to drown opponents in data demonstrating that the simplest idea for alleviating poverty was in fact the silver bullet it appeared to be.

Of course, whether something “works” depends on the definition. Obviously giving people more money makes them less poor, but the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration team set out to show that as little as $500 a month — not nearly enough to replace actual income — would have a multiplier effect, allowing recipients to improve their employment prospects, their physical health and mental well-being, their children’s education, and their overall stability.

A research team from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Guaranteed Income Research laid out three overarching questions: How does guaranteed income affect volatility? To what degree do changes in income volatility alter financial well-being, psychological distress and physical functioning? How does guaranteed income generate agency over one’s future?

To conduct their randomized controlled trial, the Penn researchers tracked purchases on the debit cards provided to the 125 recipients, asked recipients and control-group members to input monthly income data, and conducted biannual surveys to learn how people’s lives were going. The questions focused on recipients’ well-being, but also on some of the most common objections to guaranteed income: Did they quit their jobs, content to live on “free money”? Did they blow all their funds on cigarettes and liquor?

“I never came in asking for permission,” Tubbs said on a sweltering November day in Los Angeles, where he moved after losing his reelection bid in Stockton. “I was not ready for a vote; I was going to do this. But I did go in wanting to make sure I understood sort of where the sentiment was, where the opposition was. I said, ‘Well, look, we’ll evaluate this and see how the money is spent and we’ll see who’s right.’ ”

In March 2021, the researchers released preliminary data from the first year of the pilot. While their first peer-reviewed paper is still in the works, their self-reported results showed an unqualified success. More than 50 percent of recipients said they could pay for a $400 emergency expense in cash, compared with 25 percent before the program began and 28 percent of the control group. Recipients experienced statistically significant improvements in their mental health as determined by a common test of psychological well-being.

“Even my staff cautioned me about being so optimistic and confident,” says former Stockton mayor Michael Tubbs, “but I was going to bet on people.”

Importantly for Tubbs and other politicians looking to sell conservatives on guaranteed income, the study found that SEED participants were more likely to find full-time employment than members of the control group. Recipients spent the biggest share of their cash on food, followed by other merchandise, utility bills, and gas and car maintenance. Less than 1 percent of the total allotted funds were used to buy tobacco or alcohol. “Honestly, I don’t think SEED could have gone any better,” Kline says. “I’m astounded at what a small little demonstration can do.”

A year later, data from a D.C.-based guaranteed-income experiment showed similarly promising results. Thrive East of the River provided $5,500 to 600 families in Ward 8 during the pandemic, either as a lump sum or as five monthly payments. Although the program was too short-term to measure effects on employment, Urban Institute researchers found significant positive effects on recipients’ mental health, food security and ability to meet their children’s needs. Thrive wasn’t part of the mayors’ consortium launching guaranteed-income pilots, but policymakers embraced the Urban Institute data as an important part of the overall work.

“Even my staff cautioned me about being so optimistic and confident, but I was going to bet on people,” Tubbs said, tilting back in his chair in the messy shed-turned-office that sits behind his home in a historically Black neighborhood of L.A. The SEED results “were particularly vindicating because everyone was like, ‘We need cash,’ but there were all these racist tropes. And the opposite of all the tropes is what the data showed was true.”

The question Tubbs and his allies did not originally confront, however, is what would happen if they showed that guaranteed income works — but still didn’t convince enough lawmakers to support it. Toward the end of 2021, guaranteed-income advocates got a harsh lesson on the limitation of data when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of policymakers and voters.

Earlier that year, in response to the pandemic, President Biden had signed a dramatically expanded version of the child tax credit (CTC). Suddenly, parents would be paid as much as $3,600 per child per year, up from $2,000. But there was a bigger change, too: The money became fully refundable, meaning parents would receive the funds even if their total tax liability was lower than the credit itself. Historically, the poorest one-third of parents didn’t benefit from the CTC because they pay the least in taxes. Now, they would receive an extra several thousand dollars a year, delivered monthly — essentially a small guaranteed income. Scholars called it one of the most important moves to fight poverty since the creation of Social Security.

As soon as parents began receiving the extra CTC funds, several groups of researchers began studying the results. “We were hopeful that people would be able to see the immediate benefits — the poverty reduction that was happening, but also … the impacts for families in terms of reducing stress and the ability to afford the basics,” says Chris Wimer, who co-led one such team, at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy. With that proof of effectiveness in hand, Wimer hoped, Congress would feel compelled to make the policy permanent.

In December 2021, Wimer and his colleagues released a report on the first six months of the expanded CTC. Each month, they found, the policy single-handedly kept as many as 3.8 million children out of poverty, reducing the child poverty rate by nearly 30 percent. The largest percentage of money was spent on food, followed by essential bills, clothing, rent or mortgage payments, school expenses, and paying down debt. The number of families who didn’t have enough to eat in a given week dropped by 24 percent; parents were no more likely to stop working because of the extra funds.

A separate Columbia study found that a permanent expansion would have generated 10 times as much revenue as it cost. But ultimately, none of that mattered. The Build Back Better bill, which included a one-year extension of the CTC expansion, narrowly passed the U.S. House in November 2021, but all 50 Senate Republicans opposed it. When Biden’s negotiations with Sen. Joe Manchin III, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, broke down just before the holiday break, Biden stopped publicly advocating for the new version of the CTC.

After the expanded CTC ran out, Wimer and other scholars found that child poverty rates increased immediately, spiking 41 percent in the first month. About 1 in 7 American children lives below the poverty line, which — at just $27,750 for a family of four — dramatically underestimates the number who are simply too poor to eat well or to have consistent electricity access or to afford registration fees for school sports.

The child tax credit saga forced many in the guaranteed-income movement to give up the hope that a federal policy was imminent. Advocates talk openly about the lessons they learned, including that statistics are not sufficient and that upfront costs feel more tangible than long-term fiscal benefits. A partial solution to both problems, they believe, is encouraging recipients to tell their own stories rather than being rendered anonymous in a list of statistics.

Nearly every guaranteed-income pilot program selects a small subset of recipients — Zohna Everett was one — to speak publicly about their experiences, providing them professional media training. The chosen storytellers are taught to focus on specific details — what emergency expense were they able to cover with their guaranteed income? what smaller treat, whether a restaurant meal or a night away from home, did they splurge on? how could they tell their children were feeling more stable? — and several pop up regularly in national media outlets.

“We have a goal of changing or challenging narratives around people,” says Juliana Bidadanure, a philosophy professor at Stanford and director of the university’s Basic Income Lab. That’s long, slow work; the current initiatives are like adding a few individual stones to the base of a cathedral so grand it might not be completed for decades. “It’s always about more than just actual policy. It’s about how we view each other and when we think of each other as deserving of support and when we don’t, and what stands in the way. And if we understand that and we make progress on that, we make progress on many other things.”

Despite the setbacks at the federal level, philanthropic interest in guaranteed income continues to increase and the body of research on local programs continues to grow. No two experiments work exactly the same way — some are only for people making under a certain income, others are limited to certain neighborhoods or just for single parents — making each city feel like its own laboratory.

Still, as in any movement — especially one where the greatest energy is at the local level — there are disagreements, some over substance and others over who gets the most attention. Unanswered questions range from the fundamental (should guaranteed income be provided to everyone, or more narrowly targeted to lift people out of poverty?) to the ultra-specific (should money be provided on prepaid debit cards or via online transfers?), and there is plenty of jockeying among movement leaders over who knows best.

Three hundred and fifty miles down Interstate 5 from Stockton, the Compton Pledge has replaced SEED as the nation’s buzziest guaranteed-income experiment. The key difference: While most pilots are designed to investigate whether basic income works, the team in Compton sees that question as too obvious to merit discussion. Instead, they are studying the factors that make it work best. “Now we know that we should do this policy,” says Nika Soon-Shiong, the Compton Pledge’s co-director. “The question is really how. And unless we get more future-oriented, thinking about how and asking questions to inform the answer, we’re going to fail.”

Soon-Shiong, 29, stands out among movement leaders. Its most visible proponents are Black; she is the daughter of ethnically Chinese, natively South African parents. She didn’t grow up in Compton, and she began studying basic income as a PhD student at Oxford University. And whereas many guaranteed-income advocates talk in detail about how a policy would have helped their own families, her father is billionaire bioscientist Patrick Soon-Shiong, who owns the Los Angeles Times and a share of the Lakers. She also voices a more radical case for guaranteed income, laced with language about prison abolition, defunding the police and reparations.

Soon-Shiong is uncommonly focused on the nitty-gritty of guaranteed-income programs. The 800 Compton Pledge recipients are split into several groups: Some receive money biweekly, others monthly, quarterly, or in one lump sum, and amounts range from $3,600 to $7,200 a year based on family size — allowing researchers to draw conclusions about what schedule works best for recipients and how much is necessary to make a substantive difference. Participants can choose from four ways to receive their funds (direct deposit, Venmo, PayPal or debit card), and can track their payments, find resources and ask questions on an online platform orders of magnitude more attractive and intuitive than any government website in the history of the internet. While a raft of third-party companies have begun competing for contracts to operate guaranteed-income pilot programs and payment systems, Compton’s homemade system is significantly cheaper, meaning more money for actual people in need.

While Soon-Shiong and Tubbs have a good relationship, she is sensitive to the common narrative that he is the leader of the guaranteed income movement. “You talk to Michael Tubbs and then you maybe put Nika in at the very end” was how she summed up most reporting on the topic. Their relationship goes back to Stanford, where she was a few years behind him. (SEED executive director Sukhi Samra was two years behind Soon-Shiong; Tubbs’s connection to Jack Dorsey, which led to Dorsey’s $15 million donation to Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, also came through Stanford.) And while Tubbs did play a role in the Compton Pledge, introducing Soon-Shiong to then-Mayor Aja Brown, she is quick to make clear that she asked for the connection, then presented Brown a 14-page, intricately detailed proposal, because she was independently committed to creating a guaranteed-income pilot.

Last year, Soon-Shiong submitted a proposal for the Compton Pledge’s parent organization, Fund for Guaranteed Income (FGI), to oversee a pilot program in neighboring Los Angeles, her hometown. Instead, L.A. chose to work with Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, using a third-party payments platform instead of the one FGI created. She is occasionally exasperated that having what she sees as unequivocally the best product hasn’t made her team the recognized leader in the field, describing the Compton Pledge as the “black sheep” of the movement. She’s also concerned that an endless string of pilots showing the same results isn’t an effective way of building on the momentum created early in the pandemic.

“We know that we are the best at what we do, and it is disheartening and frustrating when the nonprofit world is centered around who’s focusing the most on communications, who is focusing the most on funder outreach,” she said, sitting at the dining room table in her bright white West Hollywood apartment. “We are focusing the most on how to build something that works, and that’s not really rewarded. I still think we’re right. I still know we’re doing it the right way, and it just looks different from what others are doing.”

Ask Soon-Shiong which other pilot programs are “doing it the right way,” and she won’t name the big ones launched by city governments this spring and summer, in places like Baltimore, New Orleans and Chicago. Instead, she brings up some of the tiniest programs in the country, ones less focused on the academic questions than simply putting money in people’s hands.

One of the pilots Soon-Shiong likes to promote, the Boston-based Community Love Fund, started by funding five formerly incarcerated women in the Roxbury neighborhood, with a budget of $30,000 a year. After FGI came in as a partner in late 2021, the program expanded to 25 currently and formerly incarcerated women. A similar program, the Chicago Future Fund, is using FGI support to provide $500 a month to 30 formerly incarcerated residents in the West Garfield Park neighborhood, entirely independently from the $31 million pilot the city launched this past summer.

In the earliest days of the Community Love Fund program, founder Andrea James says, she asked the mayor of Boston for a small grant to support the group’s work but was turned down, which she now considers a gift. Running the program through her nonprofit, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, makes the program feel like mutual aid, not a tool of the establishment. “We’re building alternate systems from within communities, because even when we can get a city or state entity to work with us on things, they mostly commandeer our language and then replicate something that is still attached to law enforcement, attached to government bureaucracy, attached to things that aren’t community-led,” James says.

Ultimately, though, getting more money to more people requires the type of massive funding that only governments can provide. FGI recently announced partnerships with two government-run programs in California, one in Sonoma County and one in Long Beach. Tubbs, meanwhile, is now working as an adviser to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who last year approved a $35 million fund to create additional guaranteed-income pilots. “I am a hyper-pragmatist,” Tubbs says. Community Love Fund “is great for the five women in Roxbury. It’s going to change their lives. But there’s thousands who need it, and governments scale, right?”

Many of the newest pilots are doing their best to have it both ways: running the program through the city government — which allows them to combine philanthropic dollars with pandemic-relief funds — but planning the details with an unusual level of input from ordinary residents. In Baltimore, three representatives from neighborhood groups sat on the pilot steering committee alongside scholars, lawyers and nonprofit executives. In July 2021, the group proposed three potential target populations for the pilot, asking Mayor Scott to choose among young parents, residents of neighborhoods with the highest crime rates, or formerly incarcerated residents. Instead, he asked for a hybrid approach: 18- to 24-year-old parents in high-crime neighborhoods, all of them making under the city’s median income.

In August, 200 young parents in Baltimore received their first $1,000 payments of the two-year pilot. By the time they get their last, in summer 2024, the guaranteed income movement will be in a very different place. Where that will be, no one is entirely sure. Perhaps the wave of evidence-based support for anti-poverty initiatives will have grown into an unstoppable groundswell, forcing conservatives and moderates to get on board. But it’s disconcertingly easy to imagine the opposite: that poverty rates continue to rise unchecked after a precipitous drop during the pandemic, and most of us silently agree to look the other way.

Back in Stockton, Zohna Everett still hadn’t been able to return to work as of September, because of chronic illness, and since her $500 a month ran out in early 2021, she has struggled to make ends meet. She’s on a variety of state benefits programs, picks up a little extra money doing nails for friends and neighbors, and occasionally swallows her pride enough to accept handouts from church, but it’s never quite enough. A few months after SEED ended, her car was repossessed.

If the current pilots end without a clear path toward a larger policy, thousands of people will be left in Everett’s shoes. She remains thankful for the $12,000 she received over the two years of SEED, but these days, an early poster child of guaranteed income’s possibilities has yet again been left to fend for herself.

Megan Greenwell is a journalist in New York. She is writing a book about private equity and how it affects workers.



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