The radical potential of guaranteed income based on race

BAY AREA AFFAIRS: A proposed basic income model in Oakland provided an invaluable framework for understanding, bridging the racial wealth gap

Illustration of money being redistributed around Oakland and Berkeley
Rachel Lee/Staff

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Long debated as a potential solution to poverty, basic income has gained renewed attention amid the COVID-19 recession.

Last month, Oakland announced the launch of a guaranteed basic income, or GBI, pilot program that will provide low-income households with monthly payments, no strings attached. Unlike other basic income experiments, Oakland’s GBI, which is funded by private donors, was intended exclusively for residents who are Black, Indigenous or people of color. 

Since its announcement, the program has been subject to much criticism from those who say it discriminates against low-income people who are white — so much criticism, in fact, that Oakland recently opened eligibility to all low-income households regardless of race. While BIPOC households remain the focus, this focus is no longer explicit.

And that’s a shame.

Just as “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t suggest white lives are insignificant — to interpret the movement in this way is to fundamentally misunderstand it — addressing financial hardship faced by BIPOC residents doesn’t negate the hardship of white residents. 

That people of all races experience poverty is a given. But it’s important to recognize the stark inequities that exist along racial lines.

In Oakland, the median income of white households is three times that of Black households. In East Oakland — a predominantly Black and Latinx region of the city targeted by the GBI program — half of residents live in poverty, compared to about 19% citywide.

Maps illustrating economic segregation across the Bay Area closely correlate with those illustrating racial segregation and exclusionary zoning. Race and wealth have, for decades, been inextricably intertwined.

With this in mind, Oakland’s original GBI model seemed promising.

Despite skepticism of basic income, the program has, in practice, proven rather successful. Findings from a recent universal basic income experiment in Stockton, California show that most of the money participants received went toward food and basic needs. Those who received basic income were also twice as likely to find employment compared to others, refuting a common argument that such payments induce complacency. 

The much-needed money that would’ve gone directly to low-income households of color would alone have made Oakland’s original GBI pilot worthwhile. 

The updated program is still valuable. But what made the original version invaluable was its radical framework for reform that explicitly considered the racial context of economic inequality.

GBI cannot, of course, act as a stand-alone program. The provision of monthly payments to low-income households doesn’t negate the role of government in creating jobs and expanding the social safety net for all in need. But the bold model imagined in Oakland had the potential to fundamentally change the way we think about — and begin to bridge — the racial wealth gap in the United States today.

It deserves another chance. Perhaps Berkeley will be next.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the spring 2021 opinion editor, Jericho Rajninger.