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Two and a half years into the COVID pandemic, early protections and emergency money have for the most part - dried up. Their benefits have been well documented, as has the divisive discourse around increased social spending.
 
As prices rise and individuals are left to pick up the pieces, some cities are trying a much discussed, but rarely implemented experiment: guaranteed income.
 
"We have so many families who are living paycheck to paycheck, who are having to make really tough decisions about, you know, do I sort of buy more food or do I pay the electric bill? How do I time my grocery trips?" 
 
That’s Sonoma County’s 5th District Supervisor, Lynda Hopkins.
 
"And our hope is that just taking the edge off, just giving folks a little bit of extra income will really go a long way to supporting families." Hopkins said.
 
In early September the county launched a guaranteed income trial program in partnership with a number of community organizations, and the cities of Healdsburg, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa.
 
Jim Pugh is co-director of a Bay Area advocacy group called the Universal Income Project. He said guaranteed basic income, known as GBI, helps to meet critical income shortfalls.
 
"The general idea behind guaranteed basic income is that it's regular cash transfers that bring people up to a level that's sufficient to survive on so that no matter what else is going on in someone's life, they're always going to have that underlying income that's in contrast to the way that people get income today, whether from a job or from social programs." Pugh said.
 
Thanks to an infusion of federal dollars from Covid relief funds, local governments have an unprecedented opportunity to test out guaranteed income programs. Pugh said the Bay Area has been particularly receptive to the concept.
 
Now Sonoma County residents will have a chance to receive a guaranteed basic income themselves.
 
Healdsburg was the first city to approve a GBI pilot program and according to Healdsburg city manager Jeff Kay, the idea came about over a year ago, during early discussions within the city government on how to spend federal money received through ARPA, the American Rescue Plan.
 
"It's something that came up as a way that we could help segments of the community that were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic." Kay said. "Some folks in our community bounce back really quickly and strongly from the pandemic and for others, it was, it was much more impactful. There's not necessarily an expectation that this will be perfect, but it seems to have the potential to have really positive results."
 
305 Sonoma County families who meet the trial program criteria will receive an unconditional $500 cash payment for the pilot programs’ 24 month duration.
 
Some of the criteria includes being pregnant or having a child under the age of 6, having experienced adverse economic impacts due to Covid, and having a household income of about $51,000 for a family of four.
 
Hopkins noted the potential for future benefits for society of these cash transfers.
 
"Growing up in poverty is itself an adverse childhood experience." Hopkins said. "And if, if folks have those adverse childhood experiences, they're less likely to do well in school, they're less likely to graduate from high school and to go onto college. They're more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. They're more likely to end up homeless. And so, you know, poverty busting is really what we need to do in order to address many of the challenges that we face as a society."
 
According to data from the United Ways of California, over half of Sonoma County households with children under age six struggle to meet basic costs.
 
Petaluma assistant city manager Brian Cochran said those financial stresses reverberate across the county.
 
"When families are worried about where the next meal is coming from, when they're worried about basics like rent or utility bills, then there are struggles with the children in terms of getting to school, you know, getting a good education, general challenges with not being able to put the time into their kids." Cochran said.
 
He said in his view, the guaranteed income program provides a remedy.
 
"If we can give some folks a leg up, give them an extra $500 a month, they can make their utility bills. They can buy extra food or diapers or basic essentials for their kids. Then that takes some of that pressure and stress off of that family."
 
One of the most common rebukes of GBI programs is the unconditional distribution of money - detractors often say it disincentivizes work and allows for a misuse of funds.
 
An analysis of Stockton's SEED program though, the first and most high profile GBI pilot, showed food was the number one expense recipients spent their guaranteed income on - accounting for 37% of the money spent. Purchases of things like alcohol and tobacco accounted for less than 1% of money spent.
 
Pugh said the unconditional nature of the money is precisely what makes GBI successful.
 
Assumptions had been if you didn't attach conditions, people would misuse funds, and the observations have pretty much been the opposite." Pugh said. "Not only do people use unconditional cash responsibly to actually address challenges in their lives. What can often happen is that they use it for challenges that aren't even recognized by people running the program."
 
Pugh explained further.
 
"For example, if someone is struggling, you might think, oh, they need money paying a down payment on rent." Pugh said. "When it turns out the issue is their car broke down. And if they can get a few hundred dollars to pay for the repairs, they can go back to work and back on their feet, by providing this cash without conditions you're granting additional self-determination to people that study after study is shown actually is beneficial for them to resolve their issues."
 
Data analysis is a key component of previous GBI programs, and a big focus of those being rolled out in Sonoma County.
 
Healdsburg city manager Jeff Kay said collecting data will be integral to Healdsburg’s trial program, but expectations should be tempered.
 
"I think we have to be realistic that with a limited program of 50 families over 24 months, we're not necessarily going to get so much data back that we know exactly what the outcome of basic income programs can be." Kay said.
 
Cochran, though, said the combined county-wide data could offer greater insights after the trials conclude.
 
"The First Five Sonoma group is going to be the common administrator for the program." Cochran said. "So across all the different jurisdictions, collecting the data, it'll be common data so that we can again, see what those impacts are."
 
A good partnership is needed between community organizations and local governments in implementing the GBI trials. Kay said for Healdsburg it was simply a matter of capacity.
 
"Corazon, which is a local nonprofit that's very, very active in our community; from my perspective, has the administrative capabilities to really run the day to day side of that program." Kay said. "Which is something that I don't think we have the, the tools in, in city government to do. So it's been something conceived in partnership with them almost from the beginning."
 
Above all, Kay said the pilot will help those in need.
 
"It's a meaningful amount of money to people who really need it." Kay said. "And people who are really struggling. And I don't see how that can't be helpful. And my hope is that we come away with, with a number of individual stories of really positive transformation. And that alone to me could make this worthwhile."
 
As for broader reach, Pugh said a truly universal guaranteed income would need to be federally funded; but he said the United States already has plenty of examples to draw on.
 
"The sovereign wealth fund or social wealth fund model that you see in Norway." Pugh said. "It it's also actually what you see already today in the state of Alaska. They have a well fund that they've built out from oil revenue over the last 40 years. Basically every Alaskan every year receives a dividend that comes out of the return on that fund."
 
He said he is hopeful for the future for guaranteed income.
 
"It's been impressive to see how quickly this space has moved forward." Pugh said. "Universal income project started back in 2015 and at that point, our entire goal was just to get this idea out there, even though it, it feels daunting right now to be able to do anything big at the federal level, perhaps in another five or 10 years, things that we, we can't imagine today could really be possible."
 
Sonoma County families can determine their eligibility and apply for a guaranteed income at pathwaysonoma.org/apply until October 31st.
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