A year and a half ago, Terran Johnson’s life seemed to be turning around for the better. Johnson, who experienced homelessness as a teenager, was working for a nonprofit organization, and had stable housing.
The Oakland native was also accepted into the city’s Oakland Resilient Families pilot, an ambitious program that intended to give $500 monthly payments to 300 East Oakland participants for 18 months, no strings attached.
“It’s a whole lot easier now to just work and feel like things are moving forward,” Johnson told The Oaklandside in October 2021, a few months into the pilot.
Fast forward to early 2023, and Johnson has experienced a tumultuous series of events. Johnson says he was wrongfully terminated from his job. He started working as a delivery driver and picked up other side jobs but the money wasn’t enough and he fell behind on rent.
Johnson refers to his $500 monthly check as a saving grace because it makes all the difference. The payments are helping him catch up on the rent he owes while also being able to save a little money. “The program is a Godsend, honestly, and I’m glad they extended it,” he said.
UpTogether, the nonprofit organization facilitating Oakland’s program, recently received an anonymous $1 million gift allowing the program to continue until June.
But when the program ends this summer, there will be numerous questions left to answer. What impact did it really have on participants’ lives and their communities? If it was positive, how can similar programs continue into the future? And is it possible to scale up a guaranteed income program to create economic security for more than a few hundred people?
We checked in with a few of the participants we talked to in 2021, as well as the pilot program’s leaders, and academics who study guaranteed income, to see how they feel about Oakland’s test case, and what might be next.
Can these programs be scaled?
Oakland’s program was modeled after a guaranteed income experiment in Stockton and was one of several similar pilots coordinated across the country by the group Mayors for Guaranteed Income. The Oakland program, and a second, city-wide phase that added 300 more families, were funded by private philanthropy, not public money. There is no clear-cut way to implement a long-term version of the pilot. The city doesn’t have enough revenue to pay for a similar program that would reach more low-income people.
“Mayor Schaaf talked about this—this isn’t something they can scale,” UpTogether CEO Jesús Gerena told The Oaklandside in a recent interview. “But the evidence, stories, and work can hopefully inspire legislation. There are other mechanisms besides the city of Oakland carrying this burden.”
Gerena said expanding tax credits for low-income families could have a similar impact, and pointed to the increase of the federal child tax credit in 2021 as a model.
Proponents like Gerena and Schaaf say guaranteed income programs can help right historical wrongs by funneling money into communities that have faced systemic disinvestment and barriers to wealth-building like redlining and job discrimination.
“Over 40 years, we’ve grown inequality in this country, especially for Black and Latino families,” Gerena said. “The safety net punished them based on negative stereotypes. We continue to get poverty wrong and continue to undermine our biggest assets—people.”
The exact impact of the Oakland pilot on the households and neighborhoods it’s served is not yet clear. While researchers from UC Santa Barbara and the University of Pennsylvania are studying various aspects of the program, the facilitators have not yet seen the results of those inquiries, Gerena said.
From studies of similar programs and from participant feedback, “What we do know in general is that over and over again, people are using these dollars for basic needs,” he said.
Dr. Kalen Flynn, a research scientist for the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Guaranteed Income Research, told The Oaklandside the center is currently studying the program in Oakland and that a report assessing the impact of Stockton’s now defunct guaranteed income initiative was released this week in the Journal of Urban Health. The center studies the growing trend of local governments sponsoring programs to bridge the gender and racial wealth gap, and if these free stipends are making a difference.
While Flynn couldn’t speak on the specifics yet, she did share her thoughts on why we’ve seen so many programs pop up in the last few years. “I think frontline worker and laborer conditions got a lot more attention because of the pandemic,” Flynn said, “which I think rolled up into guaranteed income as an intervention [method] that says, ‘People have the agency and the personhood to be able to decide what they do with their money.’”
“The money has changed our lives a lot”
Karina, one of the East Oakland participants, said her family has used the cash “on things like another pair of shoes or a sweater—things we couldn’t do before.”
Karina is a single mother of three who works as a nanny and struggles to support her family, including paying tuition and expenses for one child who’s at a four-year college and for another in community college. For months, Karina had been dealing with a car that would regularly break down, threatening her ability to get to work. Once the pilot was extended, she was able to replace it.
“As a single mother with children, definitely the money has changed our lives a lot,” she said, even if it’s not enough to take care of some of the bigger costs. She’d love to see it expanded throughout the city. (We’re identifying Karina by her first name only because of privacy concerns related to her immigration status.)
Karina said that beyond the financial support, she was excited by the program’s promise to create a network among the participants, so they could link up to search for jobs or share advice. She said she has yet to see any opportunity for contact with the other households, though she acknowledged she sometimes misses calls or emails.
An UpTogether spokesperson said the research institutions did divide the participants into both online and in-person groups, where participants have contact with one another. She said some groups have had difficulty connecting with their members, but they “seem to be in the minority.”
“I think the goal is wonderful, but it didn’t work for me,” said Karina.
For Alisha Roe, the payments have allowed her to catch up on bills, build her credit back up, and start a savings account for her 9-year-old grandson. She also launched a nonprofit organization, called the Love Lois Foundation, to distribute food and clothes to homeless people. At the start of the pilot, Roe was unemployed and got by on disability payments. She recently started a new job as a security guard at a local hospital because she wasn’t expecting the six-month extension. Her current financial goal is to save enough money for a car for her and her grandson, whom she legally adopted.
“I made provisions to be able to take care of me and Jeremiah, and so I can afford some of the things I had already set in motion for me and him,” she recently told The Oaklandside.
Like Karina, her biggest disappointment with the pilot was that she wasn’t able to meet other recipients to exchange resources and help each other become financially self-sufficient.
“That was something I could have benefited from—being able to talk and network with people, get resources from each other, and talk about what’s going on,” said Roe, who has also written about her experience in the pilot.
Johnson has been happy with how UpTogether is running things. The organization surveys participants once a month about their experiences and offers cash incentives of varying amounts for doing so. “You can get $50 for one survey, you can get $100 for another survey,” Johnson said, “and those types of things are really helpful in moments where you are struggling.”
The types of questions asked revolve around how participants are utilizing their stipends, which Johnson views as a helpful way to gauge their experiences. “They don’t do too much prying, the surveys are more just to see how the program is affecting us.”
Government has a role to play
Oakland Resilient Families launched under former Mayor Libby Schaaf, who left office at the end of 2022.
“The government simply does not know how to move every single unique individual into self-sufficiency,” Schaaf recently told The Oaklandside. “Guaranteed income is a policy whose time has come. It recognizes a basic fact: That poverty is not a personal failure. It is a policy failure. Our own policies are contributing to intergenerational poverty.”
Schaaf distinguished between guaranteed income and universal basic income: guaranteed income is targeted toward those who need it to meet an income floor, while the latter is for everyone.
Since she left office, Schaaf has begun a fellowship with Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a coalition that advocates for programs across the country. She helps to recruit more mayors and now county officials for the group’s new partner organization, Counties for a Guaranteed Income. The group was founded by Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton who introduced a guaranteed income program in 2019 that helped recipients pay down debt, gain employment, and see improvements in their mental health.
In 2022, Mayors for a Guaranteed Income collected data on more than two dozen guaranteed income pilots around the country and found that participants spent about 40% of the payments on retail, which can include spending at stores like Walmart and Target, and about 28% of the funds went to food and groceries.
Oakland’s current Mayor Sheng Thao has also signed onto Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. Thao declined an interview about the Oakland program, but in a statement from her spokesperson Julie Edwards, said her office is tracking the results of the pilot to inform future plans.
According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Flynn, most guaranteed income programs end when the money paying for them runs out. Advocating for more funding can be challenging when most of the research examining the impacts of these initiatives is still in the works.
“The research takes a while, the research always lags behind the pilot, but the research is going to start coming soon so you will have the evidence base,” Flynn said.
In order to make these programs more financially sustainable, Flynn believes more government investment is needed.
If Oakland does continue the program, one question will be whether it is funded through philanthropy or public funds. Oakland Resilient Families was funded completely through philanthropy. In December, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state would award funding to guaranteed income pilot programs across California. Like Oakand’s pilot, funding for these state-coordinated programs is also from private philanthropic sources.
If guaranteed income is to succeed on a bigger scale, the funding source needs to change, according to Schaaf.
“For it to be permanent, and for it to be policy, it must be adopted by the government. But often, it is faster and less restrictive to use private money for pilots,” said Schaaf, who was known for raising philanthropic funds for her initiatives. Schaaf is also teaching a course at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy on public-private partnerships and systems change.
“The federal government is the only level of government that can offer an entitlement that can guarantee something like an income floor. The rest of us have to stick to balanced budgets every year, so we can’t make those kinds of promises.”