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Guaranteed Income Highlights Success of Public-Private Collaboration

Date: August 8, 2023

Sumbul Siddiqui

Mayor, City of Cambridge

Michael Tubbs

Founder, Mayors for a Guaranteed Income

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You would be hard pressed to find an idea that has gained more traction more quickly than a guaranteed income. When it was first proposed in Stockton, CA, people were shocked — “How will you stop them from buying flat-screen TVs?” “Won’t they just spend it on drugs and alcohol?” “But there must be some limits on what they can purchase, right?”

Stockton’s guaranteed income pilot began disbursements in 2019, serving just 125 residents, and was solely funded by philanthropy. Fast forward five years and Cambridge, MA (where one of us, Sumbul, is mayor) has taken their own fully philanthropically-funded pilot, implemented in partnership with the Cambridge Community Foundation, to now becoming the first city in the country to expand its guaranteed income program to every family living in poverty, using public dollars. This shift was largely catalyzed by public-private partnerships.

In 2017, using public funds for a guaranteed income pilot was entirely unthinkable, and open-minded funders stepped outside the proverbial box and fully funded the $3.5 million cost of the two-year pilot. The positive results in the midst of a pandemic that left much of the country in economic uncertainty pushed the radical into the realm of the pragmatic.

Philanthropy helped us show what was possible, enabling us to harness the power of public-private partnerships to move from one pilot in one city to launching Mayors for a Guaranteed Income (MGI), a coalition of mayors advocating for direct cash as a way to build a fairer and more equitable economy. Since 2020, MGI has grown from 11 mayors to 115 mayors across 33 different states. We have also supported the launch of over four dozen guaranteed income pilots across the country — in total, these pilots will deliver at least $200 million in direct, flexible relief to everyday Americans. The majority of these funds will be public dollars.

None of this progress would’ve been achieved if bold philanthropists hadn’t been willing to buck the status quo and take a risk on rejecting the idea of business as usual. So many philanthropic projects are specific in what they give, or who they give to, and how. The notion of relinquishing the reins of control and simply giving money is something that challenged the way philanthropy has traditionally worked, but the rapid results show that this kind of community-centered and direct giving is a model philanthropists should adopt across issue areas.

Through the help of our funders, the work of MGI helped lay the foundation for the expanded Child Tax Credit, which essentially functioned as a guaranteed income for nearly every parent in America. Unfortunately, a minority of leaders who operate with a deep mistrust of their constituents kept us from making the most effective tool our country has ever had in fighting poverty permanent. Rather than derail our efforts, though, we redoubled them: expanding our cohort of local leaders working on a shared mission to create an economy that works for all.

Data from across several dozen of our pilots shows we’re making progress — recipients of guaranteed income programs are overwhelmingly women and people of color, two groups facing the most economic marginalization in this country. To cite one example, Miyah, a participant in our Birmingham, AL pilot, had to leave her job because of a high-risk pregnancy. The unrestricted monthly cash payments she received helped her put food on the table and deliver her baby safely while she couldn’t work. In another case, Samantha and Max, parents of four in Saint Paul, MN who are featured in a new national documentary on guaranteed income, were terrified when Max lost his job at the same time their child was diagnosed with heart problems. Guaranteed income helped them cover medical bills and enabled Samantha to get the training needed for a higher-paying job.

Stories like these inspire us to continue fighting for a permanent national program that would finally pass the baton from private funding to public. That’s the idea behind the Guaranteed Income Works Tour, a series of field hearings we’ll be hosting between local and federal leaders in cities across the country through 2024. We kicked off our tour in June, with Rep. Robert Garcia in Long Beach, CA — who as mayor was a MGI member, and launched the Long Beach Pledge.

Philanthropy isn’t policy and charity is not justice, but philanthropy can aid in modeling what the world should and could be. Without funders who were willing to trust in leaders like us, who are deeply rooted in our communities and acutely aware of their needs, we never would’ve been able to offer the proof of concept needed to advance this concept. Timing is also key in funding at the right moment — by not requiring their investments go to something “proven” but rather allowing us to make the case for it through our demonstrations, we were able to amplify the power of cash and share early results on its efficacy at the height of the pandemic. This led to the embracing of cash policies such as expanded UI payments and stimulus checks for the entire country, government investments in the entire country that were borne out of much smaller ones made by private funders in our initial pilots.

As we see in the tremendous progress in the guaranteed income field, making big bets on innovative solutions by harnessing the policy-making ability of public figures alongside the resources of forward-thinking philanthropists can take a kernel of an idea and turn it into national policy at warp speed. The alchemy created by public-private partnerships is not just unparalleled, it is necessary: It will take the effort of us all to solve a problem as large as poverty in the U.S.

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui is currently serving her third term on the Cambridge City Council, and second as Mayor of Cambridge. Find her on Instagram. Michael Tubbs is the former mayor of Stockton, CA, where he launched the country’s first mayor-led guaranteed income pilot, the founder of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, and an economic advisor to CA Governor Gavin Newsom. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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