Guaranteed income had a moment: Citywide direct-money pilots sprang up in Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, the latter becoming the largest the country had seen, serving 3,000 inhabitants. Some served a broader pool of low-income candidates, while others targeted very specific demographic groups. The Gainesville, Florida program focused on formerly incarcerated, while Columbia, South Carolina, supported single black fathers; in San Francisco, artists affected by the pandemic received a basic income.
Although the data varies by city, preliminary results show a significant upside: after just one year of distributing $500 checks to low-income residents of Hudson, New York, the program found that employment more than doubled among recipients, from 29% to 63%. %. Anecdotally, participants said they could plan beyond the day-to-day, start paying their bills, and save money for college or a business. Mental and physical health has improved. And, due to the unconditional nature of the income compared to other social benefits, recipients reported an improvement in their sense of individual agency.
But turning those short-term pilot projects into long-term state or federal policies is more difficult than simply collecting more evaluation data. Programs are often limited by time and money. They must keep their objectives narrow and administrative costs low, in order to maximize the money paid to individuals. They must also navigate deep-rooted cultural stigmas. A study by the International Observatory of Public Policies found that a major obstacle to the expansion of pilots is the lack of public understanding of how these pilots can benefit society as a whole; on the contrary, many believe that their neighbors get “free money” from their taxes. For these reasons, the federal government has been reluctant to fund long-term programs, preferring older social security systems because they are strictly means-tested and conditional.
To challenge these narratives, direct cash pilot programs need to engage local communities and turn them into advocates. That’s according to Income Movement, an organization that aims to motivate people who participate in pilots, or who may be eligible for future iterations; and their neighbours, to mobilize and influence elected officials with their own success stories. To help cities build their coalitions of Neighborhood Advocates, Income Movement is launching a guiding framework, the Community Engagement Pilot Program (PCEP), on May 16, ahead of the June Guaranteed Income Community of Practice, one more meeting of 100 pilots of direct cash assistance organizations from across the country, where rolling out the framework will be the main item on the agenda.
The goal of PCEP is, first, to educate neighborhoods about basic income and break down stereotypes about what it means to receive cash assistance. It aims to partner with more pilots locally and offer staff to help them run outreach events tailored to their specific communities. Finally, it will offer a digital toolkit, full of resources and best practices, to guide budding pilots on fundraising, targeting and distributing funds. “The pilots themselves are this new invention, and people have really been inventing as they go,” says Stacey Rutland, founder and president of Income Movement.
Rutland says ordinary voters have been “one of the most important levers of change” in the biggest movements of the past, such as racial equality, gender justice and gay rights. If the pilots end without building a coalition of advocates, it’s a missed opportunity — after all, it’s some of the nation’s most economically vulnerable people and the voters whose stories stand to influence elected officials the most.
Yet, while the pilot programs are very successful in collecting quantitative and qualitative data to show the value of basic income to policy makers, what is missing in the advocacy landscape is forceful movement. Last summer, California earmarked $35 million for the first US statewide income plan for youth in foster care, though funds are delegated to local organizations and municipalities to run their own programs. “Engaging [people] early on is critically important, so they know, understand and feel truly invested in what we do,” says Rutland.
Since its founding in 2019, the non-profit organization has built a proof of concept towards a community engagement model through educational events and given them the tools they need to manage them, mainly with three pilot programs. It has partnered with San Diego for Every Child, a grassroots organization focused on ending child poverty in San Diego, which launched an income pilot in March. “Income Movement came in and helped us cultivate what those sessions would look like,” says director Khea Pollard.
Together they have developed a structure of community events to help educate residents and turn them into advocates for cash assistance policies. Last December, before the program’s application process began, Pollard’s organization, with the help of Income Movement, invited residents of the pilot’s zip codes to community dinners. They screened a short documentary, inherent good, about a groundbreaking basic income pilot project for black mothers in Jackson, Mississippi. Participants then had the opportunity to share their views on direct money and what it could mean in their lives.
The event helped educate many people who did not know what Basic Income was or thought it would be impossible to implement such a policy permanently. It also helped break down some deep-rooted meritocratic narratives, like the bootstrap trope that incorrectly assumes that all Americans, regardless of status, can achieve economic success through hard work. Rutland and Pollard said the responses were generally positive; some participants asked what they could do to help.
Each community is different and will need different approaches. In Nashville, where a planned pilot project, Moving Nashville Forward, is still in the fundraising stage, Income Movement has focused on building trust within the wider community and educating them about the intersection of race and economics in the South. They hosted a series of “Lunches and Learns” with business and civil rights leaders; this summer, they hope to project The neutral grounda film about the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans.
When PCEP is launched, it will start working with new drivers; it is already in talks with programs in Gainesville and Las Vegas. Depending on the communities, suggested strategies may involve town halls with politicians and small group workshops with revenue experts; participants can also be encouraged to hold stalls at fairs and markets, attend basic income marches, and ask their local establishments to sign up to support them. They can also work with older pilots to help add community elements. “Something like that would have been so helpful when we started out,” Pollard says.
Now operational, the San Diego pilot project will end in March 2024, at which time Pollard says the PCEP “will be very beneficial in elevating this grassroots work to a national level.” They will need the energy of a movement to expand statewide, especially in a state like California, where it is possible to connect the multiple cities that are currently running pilot projects, and to force the momentum to enact state policy, Rutland hopes, in the next two legislative cycles. Then there is the federal level.
Income Movement remains agnostic as to what a federal incomes policy might look like. But he points to the child tax credit during the pandemic as an example of an effective national policy, where millions of people received money, which researchers say helped reduce the monthly poverty rate of 26% children. Rutland says credit expansion in 2021 has been driven by the voices of ordinary people. The group brought the stories of program beneficiaries to lawmakers, including Senators Chuck Schumer and Ron Wyden, to share their stories, which helped persuade lawmakers to take action.
This will be the group’s model for advancing its agenda in the future. “A lot of the time, the needs of ordinary people are what’s part of the compromise at the table when politics is going on,” Rutland says. “We want to make sure that the people who are in these rooms know the experiences, know the needs of the people.”