Guaranteed Basic Income Pilot
Portland should join cities on the leading edge of an idea whose time has come.
Following the successful leadership of countless cities around the world, who have proven through pilots that Basic Income programs can alleviate poverty and its worst symptoms, Sarah proposes a pilot program to provide 125 Portlanders a guaranteed $1000 per month for one year. The Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) pilot program proposed in this document would cost approximately $1.8M, funded through private investment, philanthropic partnerships, and reallocation of existing budget resources. If successful, the pilot could make the case for a reconsideration of how Portland allocates public dollars toward improving social outcomes, and serve as additional leverage for campaigns calling for a national GBI program, which could help pull the United States out of the worst recession in nearly a century.
What: Sarah proposes for Portland to create a pilot for a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) program. This pilot will select a group of people who will receive a no-strings-attached amount of cash each month for 12 months. During this time program managers will follow up with each recipient to find out how recipients spend the funds and how this money is impacting their lives. Program managers will also monitor a much larger control group. This pilot will be modeled after the successful Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration.
Why: Despite early claims of “we are all in this together,” the pandemic has revealed how deeply unfair the distribution of wealth is in our city. Through no fault of their own, thousands of Portlanders are facing job losses and evictions at a time when supporting community health and well-being is more critical than it has been in generations. Even before the pandemic, Portland’s grotesque inequality was on display: in 2015 Multnomah County reported that there were 3,801 Portlanders who were houseless that year. While we don’t know how high this number was in 2019, and we don’t know how much higher it may climb due to the recession, Portlanders know that the status quo was already unacceptable and new solutions are needed to address inequality.
While basic income programs were a hot topic before the pandemic, public support has grown such that a majority favor government-provided income. Among voters between ages 18-34, support registers at 69%. With widespread support, deepening need, and with programs being tested across the country and around the world, piloting a basic income program is an idea whose time has come. It is time for Portland to catch up to other US cities and address the problem of inequality with a solution that is popular, immediate, just, and practical.
This GBI pilot program could benefit more than just the recipients, whose lives may be transformed, but also the greater community. Widely-available evidence in case studies (below) shows the program could be transformational for participants (in Stockton, recipients spent 40% of the money on food), but research on a program in North Carolina shows that reducing the anxiety associated with being unable to afford daily essentials also reduces minor crime among children while increasing the likelihood of them staying in school. Meanwhile in Alaska, the increase in spending created by its statewide UBI program generates demand for more workers, improving the job market for Alaskans.
In order to recover from the recession stemming from the pandemic, Portlanders need to spend in our local economy without worrying about being displaced from their homes or unable to afford basic necessities. A GBI pilot program can help us accomplish this goal while preventing the worst outcomes for our most vulnerable citizens and community as a whole.
Who: Like similar programs being implemented across the US, this program will select Portland residents who are members of specific economically-vulnerable communities. The Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Equity Matrix will inform the selection process.
Among the 3,801 Portlanders who were houseless in 2015, the three fastest growing populations were African-American adults, women, and people over the age of 55. More than a third (39%) of the houseless were people of color (in a city that was 77% white in 2010) and 374 of the houseless were children under the age of 18. Portland cannot claim to support racial justice and a desire to end its housing crisis without directly addressing these grim facts.
For many of those Portlanders selected for a pilot, the cash payment amount is likely to alleviate substantial personal costs, contributing to a month’s rent, childcare, or groceries. By focusing on a test group that faces marginalization in this city, the GBI pilot would follow in the footsteps of the trial program in Stockton, CA by doing the most with each dollar spent.
This is why Sarah proposes selecting around 125 (a number of recipients similar to Stockton’s pilot program) Black mothers with low incomes to receive $1,000 each month for one year. The total cost to administer the program, including cash payments, would be approximately $1,800,000.
The case for a Portland pilot
Guaranteed Basic Income is an idea based on sound theory that is being tested (and proven) around the world, but Portlanders deserve a program tailored to their city. A pilot provides us with an opportunity to see not only how a GBI program would change the lives of recipients living in our city, but also the impact those recipients would then have on their local communities. This 12 month pilot program will measure outcomes and determine if program priorities should be shifted year over year, and if this is a cost effective way to target investments in Portland's social services. If the pilot is proven to be successful, Sarah would ensure any more permanent follow-up program would stand out for its community engagement process.
How: GBI is not like most welfare programs in the US, mainly in that it comes without strings attached and is not designed to shame or humiliate the recipient. There are straightforward ways to implement such a new program.
First, we have to fund the program. Sarah’s has been clear about how our city needs to stop putting good money after bad programs, such as the Portland Police Bureau’s Gun Violence Reduction Team, and reinvest that money in programs that actually work. While GBI might sound expensive, the City of Portland spent millions this year alone in overtime for policing Black Lives Matter protests, and in sweeping houseless people’s encampments. Providing 125 recipients $1,000 would cost less than $1,800,000 per year, and instead of harassing some of Portland’s most marginalized and vulnerable residents, Portland would be providing direct support to those people who need it most. Rather than using force and oppression to push the symptoms of systemic injustice and inequality out of sight, Portland’s GBI pilot will give low-income residents what they need most: money.
There may be some who believe that funding for a GBI pilot should come from the budgets of other social services and welfare programs. Finland’s national pilot demonstrates why this would hurt the recipients and skew the results of the pilot. In order to fairly measure the impact the GBI pilot is having on our most marginalized residents, we must ensure those residents aren’t receiving basic income at the cost of losing access to other essential services.
In Stockton and many other cities, philanthropy and private industry have contributed seed money to these programs because the valuable data they generate is worth the investment. Sarah will advocate to build partnerships with these sectors to invest in such a program, which can put money in the hands of low-income residents sooner without cutting the budgets of other programs that serve them. These private sources of funding may be critical during a recession when budgets are tight and the City is trying to fulfill its commitments to provide essential services to all Portlanders.
To create a truly ambitious pilot program like Stockton’s, the City can form staffing partnerships like those with nonprofit agencies who receive resources from the Portland Children’s Levy, as well as universities, and philanthropy and private donors for funding and support. Critical among those partnerships will be with Stockton’s SEED program, who have offered to help Sarah implement Portland’s pilot by providing data analysis. Such a program must deploy caseworkers to track the pilot from its inception, creating jobs in social services for Portlanders, or more likely providing additional funding for Portlanders already performing social service work, many of whom are currently underpaid.
Looking To The Future
No city initiative will be enough to overcome the crushing inequality that is redefining America. At some point the Federal government will have to step up to expand the safety net and provide some form of basic income to all Americans for the benefit of all Americans. Such a program could take the form of US Senator Kamala Harris’ LIFT the Middle Class Act, or something even better. While Portland’s pilot program may dramatically improve the lives of a few recipients for a short period and possibly change the way we approach providing social services at the local level, its ultimate goal is to provide further evidence that a statewide or national UBI program is both practical and promising in the mission to end skyrocketing inequality.
A note on Reparations
Sarah will use her platform as Mayor to push for the pilot to be a direct benefit to Black mothers with low incomes because they are among the community members hit hardest by the pandemic and the recession. However, the Guaranteed Basic Income pilot program does not intend to serve as a program for offering reparations to Black and Indigenous Portlanders for intergenerational traumas, including colonization and slavery. The rightful originator of such a program is the United States Government, which should resource a Truth and Reconciliation process to determine appropriate reparations. With the GBI Pilot, Sarah intends to demonstrate that it is possible to lift Portlanders out of poverty through direct cash payment to vulnerable people. Due to the outsize effect the pandemic is having on their lives, it is clear that Black mothers with low incomes should make up the first recipients.
Portland has fallen behind on reducing poverty, as the income disparities in our city that were already impossible to ignore continue to grow during the pandemic. While politicians, activists, and intellectuals on both sides of the aisle have floated ideas like a GBI for decades, the unique and devastating strains the pandemic has put on our city means its time has come.
This pilot program creates a roadmap for rethinking how we allocate public dollars, who they serve, and how. Pulling our city out of the recession and protecting the most vulnerable in Portland is the highest priority of the Iannarone administration. This GBI pilot represents a clear model of how innovative and progressive policies can support vulnerable populations with a solution tailored to their immediate needs, not an imagined idea of their status and personal failings.
Case studies and further reading