April 13, 2020

Mayor Baraka Op-Ed on Universal Basic Income

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The COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed something that we’ve already known: Americans need more cash in their hands. The urgency to provide that cash—as the legislation recently approved Congress would do—is an emergency measure to help stabilize families whose lives and finances have been upended by this crisis. Yet there has long been an epidemic of families living paycheck to paycheck—one unexpected bill or drop in wages, can find families in their own crisis. The need for cash will be ongoing--and so, too, must be our response.

For the past year, Newark has been examining whether providing ongoing cash to residents could be a solution for equitable growth, and if so, how we should do it? Last March in my State of the City, I announced that I was creating Newark’s Guaranteed Income Task Force to explore how a guaranteed income—regular, unconditional infusions of cash could advance the needs of Newark residents. Even as our city undergoes an unprecedented renaissance with a growing entrepreneurial community, a thriving arts and entertainment scene, and world-class transportation infrastructure, our residents are walking a financial tight-rope.

Newark’s composition is not unique to other urban communities. 78% of our residents are renters, median rents are up 20%, while median income has been down 10% since 2000. Newark’s median income is less than $40,000 a year, while United Way of Greater Newark estimates that a family must make $63,000 a year to meet basic needs.

Of course, this financial insecurity isn’t unique to Newark. According to the Federal Reserve, nearly 40% of Americans would not have enough cash on hand to cover a $400 emergency expense.

The idea of a guaranteed income is not unique to Newark. While the current attention to giving people cash is a response to a moment when everyone is at risk of a failing economy, the idea of a guaranteed income was born from a long history of thought leadership and activism by people for whom the economy has never worked.

For example, in 1967, the National Welfare Rights Organization—a coalition of thousands of welfare recipients led by Black women across the country with an active presence in Newark—demanded “decent income as a right,” and emphasized the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work on low-income women. This seems all the more relevant today as millions of parents are adding full-time care for children now out of school due to COVID-19, friends, families and neighbors are faced with the decision to protect their health and practice social distancing or stepping up to care for the sick among us. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers both advocated for a guaranteed income as a material precondition for social citizenship.

Then as now, it is the people with the greatest experience with the conditions in need of change who bring the most clarity, creativity, and urgency to pursuing solutions.

For this reason Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton, CA launched the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) in 2019 to provide $500 a month for 18 months to 125 low-income residents. Similarly, Aisha Nyandoro, Executive Director of Springboard to Opportunities in Jackson, MS launched the Magnolia Mother’s Trust (MMT) in 2018 to provide $1,000 a month for 12-months to 20 Black women living in public housing. Both initiatives are showing how powerful such a simple tool can be. In Stockton, a participant reports getting dental work that finally allows them to smile without covering their mouth. Another reports feeling the dignity of being able to cover a car repair without having to ask for help. And in Jackson, moms report paying off predatory debt and continuing their education.

These experiences show the diversity of ways that just a little extra cash can open up so many possibilities for families. As Jasmine, a resident of Newark’s Clinton Hill neighborhood our Task Force interviewed, said “Newark is full of people with unrealized potential, but they need resources to reach that potential.” This is why Newark is pursuing a guaranteed income pilot. By doing so, we will make a direct impact on hundreds of lives immediately, and join with our sister cities from around the country in advocating for a federal guaranteed income policy.

A guaranteed income’s implicit recognition that poor and working-class families, like all families, should be able to lead self-directed lives, provides an essential recalibration of where our society should plant our goalposts by anchoring them in the values of dignity and deservingness. This is where our nation should be heading. And, as former Mayor Kenneth Gibson said, “Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first.”

By acting together, we can turn this moment of collective uncertainty into a movement that leads to an America where we trust our people by putting more money into their hands not just because there is a crisis, but because it is the right thing to do.

- Newark News