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Eleven U.S. mayors are now joining together to say that struggling Americans should receive regular cash payments — no strings attached — in the midst of a global pandemic that threatens to worsen the country’s already staggering income inequality.
A new coalition of majority-Black officials, dubbed “Mayors for a Guaranteed Income,” has committed to exploring guaranteed income initiatives and advocating for them nationwide.
While it’s unclear through a website unveiled Monday what programs in individual cities might look like — or when they’d come to fruition — the mayors say that guaranteed income could help address racial and gender equity, according to the coalition’s website.
Founded by Stockton, California, Mayor Michael Tubbs, who has already piloted one such program, the group also includes leaders in Atlanta, Newark, Columbia, Compton, St. Paul, Jackson, Shreveport, Tacoma, Oakland, and Los Angeles.
“We are living in uncertain times with even greater widening economic disparity as a result of COVID-19,” Tubbs said in a press release. “As mayors, our problems may look different from town to town, but we are united in our duty to ensure the economic security of our residents, and it is unacceptable that people who are working two and three jobs can’t afford basic necessities.”
There’s also perhaps never been a greater opportunity to seriously consider unconditional cash payments for people who are barely scraping by. After all, the U.S. recently doled out a one-time $1,200 “stimulus check” to ward off total economic collapse, with bipartisan support. And thanks to the CARES Act, millions of out-of-work Americans have been collecting a $600 federal check each week — on top of their state-issued unemployment benefits. Research has shown these economic programs have so far staved off a rise in poverty, despite historic unemployment levels.
Other cities that were exploring guaranteed income plans before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic due to rising wealth inequality — like Newark — say they’re now realizing those programs are even more necessary, given that the economic toll of coronavirus will be particularly harsh on Black and Latinx Americans.
“There has long been an epidemic of families living paycheck to paycheck – one
unexpected bill or drop in wages away from their own crisis,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said in a June report pushing for a local guaranteed income program in his city. “The need for cash will be ongoing – and so, too, must be our response.”
A few cities in the newly formed coalition have also carried out these kinds of ambitious programs before. Stockton started handing monthly payments of $500 to 125 residents in 2019. Jackson’s mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, has also praised the success of a non-government pilot program in his city that gave 20 Black, impoverished moms $1,000 a month for a year.
But the programs aren’t without criticism. Opponents to guaranteed income — whether it’s offered universally or conditionally — charge it’ll be too expensive long-term and would only be a stopgap solution to the problems that spurred income inequality in the first place. But the mayors’ website notes there are ways to pay for guaranteed income through sovereign wealth funds or taxes on the rich, and that cash is only one part of “meaningful, systemic change to our economy.”
The programs in Jackson and Stockton differ from the more expensive “universal basic income” policy once touted by entrepreneur Andrew Yang during his presidential bid. Universal basic income is just that — universal. Everyone gets a piece of the pie, regardless of their income. The “guaranteed income” program piloted by Tubbs focused on low-income neighborhoods, and is meant to bolster existing welfare programs — like food, housing, and disability assistance — rather than replace them.
“We’re talking about people’s lives, and the dignity that people deserve,” Tubbs told The Nation in an interview published in August 2019. “The fact that folks are saying that something as small as $500 a month is enough for them to breathe, and to plan, and to be a good partner or parent — I think it’s an indictment on all of us.”
Cover: Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs responds to a question during his appearance before the Sacramento Press Club, Tuesday, July 10, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. Tubbs, 27, is one of the nation’s youngest big city mayors and has launched programs to provide universal basic income to a group of low-income residents and guaranteed college scholarships for public high school graduates. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)