Income, Guaranteed

A new program that gives vulnerable families in Silicon Valley no-strings-attached cash each month for two years aims to prove guaranteed income works.

Abstract Rubik's Cube From Multicolored Paints, Colorful Drawing
When considering how to structure social welfare programs to help society’s most vulnerable, it may be helpful to define the difference between universal basic income and guaranteed income. Whereas universal basic income gives all citizens a set amount of cash regardless of need, guaranteed income distributes money to people with the highest need and who’ve been historically impacted by lack of opportunities. Image courtesy Adobe Stock.

When Cassandra Staff MBA ’11 was working on a new program that’s providing 150 families in Silicon Valley $1,000 each, no strings attached, every month for two years, she knew to expect pushback in the public opinion arena.

“People would ask, ‘How do you get them from spending it on drugs and booze?’ Which is really just a reflection of the judgement we place on people in situations different from our own,” Staff says of her time working on the project with Destination: Home, a nonprofit that organizes strategies to end homelessness in and around Santa Clara County. “So many view unhoused people as the reason they’re unhoused instead of understanding there are market forces beyond individuals that are leading them to their situations. Many are just one paycheck away from being in a tenuous housing situation.”

Destination: Home and a coalition of local community groups and nonprofits began rolling out the program in December 2022. Families with children under 18-years-old who are either experiencing homelessness or unstable housing qualify.

Working directly with participants is Sacred Heart Community Service, which is overseeing orientations and tracking payments. “We are also providing intensive one-on-one public benefit counseling,” says self-sufficiency director Mercedes Carbajal M.A. ’17. They’re also working with another 150 families in a “control group” who already receive public assistance such as food stamps but won’t receive the guaranteed income as part of a research study conducted by the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative out of UC San Francisco. “We look forward to seeing the real impact of a guaranteed income. This program gives hope and immediate financial relief to families.”

The study will assess the effectiveness of guaranteed income on peoples’ housing, economic stability, health, and overall well-being. In the end, program directors hope the data will prove that guaranteed income works and policy changes follow.

“Data from the project will add to local and national learning on guaranteed income approaches for households that are experiencing homelessness or housing instability, and help make the case for increased public investment in this strategy,” says Maggie Hobstetter, economic stability program director for Sobrato Philanthropies. (One of the primary funders of this $3.6 million program, Sobrato Philanthropies was founded by John A. Sobrato ’60.) “Support for the Silicon Valley Guaranteed Income Project builds on Sobrato’s commitment to empowering individuals to decide how to best meet their own needs through cash transfers,”

Historically, housing assistance in this country entails giving money directly to landlords instead of the people actually facing homelessness, says Chad Bojorquez, chief program office at Destination: Home. “But we are operating under the assumption that if we give people money, they will take care of their own needs.”

It’s the humanist crux of any kind of basic income program: You know best how to take care of you.

Just look at Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), one of the nation’s first guaranteed income programs launched in 2019. Preliminary findings saw the majority of recipients of a guaranteed $500 month for 24 months in Stockton, California, were better able to find full-time employment, were healthier with less anxiety and stress-induced illness, and had more liquidity to pay for unexpected expenses.

“In this area especially but all over the country, so many of our households, one little thing will knock the equilibrium of finances out of balance,” Bojorquez says. Because housing prices are so outrageous here, families are “100% rent burdened, meaning all their money is going toward rent. That’s an unsustainable way to live… Just a little bit of money can help them find stability.”

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