County’s universal basic income pilot project gets underway April 1

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In just a few weeks, Yolo County’s poorest families will begin receiving a monthly stipend that will aim to lift them up and out of poverty thanks to a universal basic income pilot project.

Approved by the Board of Supervisors last year, the two-year program will provide prepaid cash cards to 54 families throughout the county who are participating in the CalWORKS housing support program and have at least one child under the age of six.

The cash aid, which can be used for any purpose, will average between $1,200 and $1,500 monthly per family, depending on family size and other sources of income, and will raise the participating families’ income level to $1 above the California Poverty Measure threshold.

The support these families are already receiving through CalWORKS includes cash aid, food stamps, Medi-Cal benefits, job supports and more.

But the current maximum CalWORKS grant for a family of four with no other income is $1,122 monthly, or $26,928 over 24 months.

The California poverty threshold for a family of four is $61,776 over two years.

“This demonstrates the really low amounts of CalWORKS benefits we give to these families to get back on their feet,” said Nolan Sullivan, interim director of Yolo County’s Health and Human Services Agency.

“What we will do is give them a monthly payment that will put them one dollar above that $61,000 mark,” Sullivan told a joint meeting of city and county officials last week.

“Every family will be a little different. Some of them have earned income, some of them have other benefits, but we will be making sure that all of the families get at least that one dollar above that CPM, which is really revolutionary.”

The families will continue to receive their other benefits, “they’ll just finally have enough money to not be living under the crushing weight of poverty,” said Sullivan.

Poverty remains a huge issue locally, with the Public Policy Institute of California reporting last year that Yolo County has the highest poverty rate in the state at 20.9 percent.

“As of July, we have the deepest poverty in California,” confirmed Sullivan.

The effort to target child poverty, in particular, began with First 5 Yolo, which approached the county about investing $100,000 in First 5 funds into a universal basic income program.

Other funding sources followed, including a $250,000 grant from Sutter Health Foundation; $150,000 from the state’s Office of Child Abuse Prevention; and $500,000 in the county’s cannabis tax revenue.

The total program cost is about $2.5 million over the two years of the pilot project and an additional $760,000 is needed, “so we’re looking for other funding partners,” said Sullivan.

But the program will launch nonetheless on April 1, when the pre-paid cards will go out to participating families.

A two-year study of the effort by UC Davis researchers will run concurrently with the two-year pilot project.

Those researchers, from the Center for Regional Change, as well as county staff, will be conducting interviews with families, collecting data and more in a comprehensive study on the benefits of the additional income for these families.

Evaluation of the pilot project will include measuring parents’ education and/or career attainment during the pilot as well as the physical and mental health of parents and children.

Studies of other universal basic income programs have shown promise.

The Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), for example, began in early 2019 by providing 130 residents making less than the city’s median income with up to $500 a month with no strings attached.

University researchers who evaluated the program found that nearly 40 percent of tracked spending went to food, but the money also covered transportation, utilities, healthcare, debt and more.

Sullivan noted that the amount of money being given to Yolo County families through the pilot project will be several times the amount given through the SEED program, “literally pulling these 54 families above the poverty line.

“So it’s not just a stipend,” he said. “It actually brings them out of poverty for their two-year period of time.”

Sullivan said the 54 families in the program are spread out across the county.

As for the need for additional funding, Supervisor Don Saylor of Davis said, “we are shopping the program to potential donors, contributors, partners to assist with the financial cost of this.”

It is a bit unusual, Saylor said, “the idea that public assistance would help bring people out of poverty, not just keep them in poverty with no hope really of escaping it.

“It’s hard work to be poor and it’s expensive and to be able to have a little break, two years where your circumstances are just a tad better, will allow for being able to improve your educational background, your investment in yourself, your investment in your children, job development … it’s just an incredible opportunity to reduce stress,” he said.

“And that reduction in stress will benefit the lives of the children in the household that will benefit generations to come.

“This is a phenomenal program,” Saylor added. “I’m really excited about it.”

Supervisor Jim Provenza of Davis agreed.

“What’s great about his pilot project is we’re going to actually take a look at what happens if you actually provide enough money to meet the basis needs,” he said.

“One of the frustrations is that whatever program you have, or whatever opportunities you provide for poor people, they never have enough money, and if you don’t have enough money, it’s hard to take advantage of the other things.”

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