What happens when people who are struggling to make ends meet get a stable income from the government? More than 100 guaranteed income programs have launched in recent years across the U.S. and most are found in California.
All of them are still in the pilot phase — they usually run for one or two years and provide between $500 and $1,000 a month without any restrictions on how to use the money. The results have been interesting, but these conversations have mostly stayed inside city councils and university classrooms. What is it like for the people who are participating in these programs? How is a guaranteed income making a difference for them — if at all?
In this episode, we spend a month with Martha López and Micaela, two participants of BIG:LEAP in the city of Los Angeles, one of the biggest guaranteed income programs in the country, and where half of the beneficiaries are Latinos and Latinas. We also learn about the history of Universal Basic Income and its many supporters — and critics.
Martha López was sitting in the passenger seat of the family car, in October 2021, while her husband, Freddy, drove through the streets of Los Angeles. She was checking the local news on her phone, when something on Univision caught her attention.
The city of Los Angeles was launching a new program to support low-income families, especially those hit hard by the pandemic. But it all sounded too good to be true, Martha thought. The program would give 3,200 families $1,000 a month for one year.
Martha’s husband had lost his job early in the pandemic and she was a stay-at-home mom, taking care of their two young daughters. The family hadn’t had a stable income for more than six months. So Martha decided to apply.
About six months later, she got the call: she had been selected for the program. “I was like in shock,” Martha says. The program coordinators gave her a red debit card, with the first $1,000 dollars on it, ready for her to use however she wanted — no rules, no restrictions, no receipts needed.
Martha felt very lucky — more than 50,000 people applied, according to the city of Los Angeles. And about 80% of program participants are women.
“I would have never in my life been able to have access to $12,000 otherwise,” Martha says. “It’s a good amount that allows you to do something beneficial.”
Single mothers, like Micaela, make up 60% of the program participants. She’s a seamstress and a mother of two boys, who are now in their twenties. Micaela arrived in the U.S. almost 30 years ago and she raised her children on her own, without any help from their father. And because she’s undocumented, Micaela also didn’t receive help from the government to raise her sons. This is the first time she’s ever received public aid — the program application didn’t ask for legal status.
During the pandemic, Micaela lost her job at a textile factory and so she started sewing masks in a small shed in her landlord’s backyard. She was also helping her youngest son finish college. She’d send him about $500 a month, depending on how much she was able to make and how much she could borrow from friends and acquaintances.
As a seamstress, Micaela struggles to make ends meet. On a good week, she says she makes $600 — but that means working every day, from 7 am until 11 pm. Having a stable income for a year made a huge difference for her. “That whole year was a relief for me, I felt I got out of the hole,” Micaela says.
Anecdotal data the Los Angeles program has been gathering so far shows that participants report “feeling less stress and anxiety,” says Abigail Marquez, the general manager of the Community Investment for Families Department with the city of Los Angeles. Her unit is in charge of implementing the BIG:LEAP program.
“I fundamentally believe that if we remove barriers for people to access programs and we empower them to make decisions for themselves and they are in the best position to make those decisions,” Abigail says. “Oftentimes, in my opinion, government is overly prescriptive. We have too many requirements, too many rules.”
Featured image courtesy of Marta Martinez.