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A little extra cash each month will improve the lives of low-income people | COMMENTARY

FILE - In this April 10, 2020, file photo, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf speaks at a news conference in Oakland, Calif. Mayor Schaaf on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, announced a privately funded program that will give low-income families of color $500 per month with no rules on how they can spend it. The program in Oakland is the latest example of "guaranteed income," an idea that giving poor people a set amount of money each month will ease the stresses of poverty that contribute to poor health and hinder their ability to find full-time work. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)
FILE - In this April 10, 2020, file photo, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf speaks at a news conference in Oakland, Calif. Mayor Schaaf on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, announced a privately funded program that will give low-income families of color $500 per month with no rules on how they can spend it. The program in Oakland is the latest example of "guaranteed income," an idea that giving poor people a set amount of money each month will ease the stresses of poverty that contribute to poor health and hinder their ability to find full-time work. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File) (Ben Margot)

What happens when you give people with low incomes a little extra cash each month to help make ends meet? In the city of Stockton, California, it improved their lives in both small and remarkably large ways. One woman who was chosen to receive the $500 a month in “guaranteed income” could afford an adequate amount of feminine hygiene products for the first time in months, according to an analysis of the program. A man was able to make his car payment and had more breathing room financially. A woman who lives paycheck to paycheck began paying down a costly title loan she took out in desperate times when her car broke down and she had no savings for a new one. A young couple was able to pay down credit card debt, alleviating financial stress that was causing arguments, anxiety and panic attacks.

The residents took part in the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, or SEED, launched in February 2019 by former Mayor Michael D. Tubbs, to help improve people’s lot in life by helping them out financially. The cash came with no strings attached, such as work requirements or drug tests, and was given to people at least 18 years old who lived in a neighborhood with a median income at or below $46,033, Stockton’s median household income.

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This idea of a guaranteed income is gaining momentum across the country, but is not a new idea: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a proponent in the ’60s. It is one that has promise to lift people out of poverty and make their lives more financially stable, and the Stockton program shows it could work at least in the short-term. (More research is needed to figure out the long-term affects). Many people are working hard to take care of their families, but still don’t have enough to cover the bills, save and pay for unexpected expenses, and a little extra money can help with that. The concept is different from typical government subsidy programs because it is not directed to any one need, such as housing or food, and allows people to spend it as they please depending on the fluctuations of their budgets. It should supplement typical safety net programs.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced recently that he would bring the concept to Baltimore in the fall, joining others cities in creating a pilot for guaranteed income to a select group of city families with low incomes. This is the type of outside the box idea the city needs to try to addresses incessant social issues in the city, as well as tackle “racial and economic disparities” as the mayor suggests it would do. At least 11 other cities have, or plan to also launch, such programs. Oakland, California, officials said last week they will give hundreds of families $500 a month for 18 months.

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Unfortunately, for some it brings up shortsighted, old, welfare queen stereotypes of people living high off the government. Critics of guaranteed income say such free money is nothing but a social program that incentivizes people not to work. The Stockton analysis found the opposite to be true and that the financial stability the extra money helped create actually served as a motivator. By eliminating the financial strain a person endured, it increased their capacity to set life goals and take risks. Thus, at the beginning of the pilot in February 2017, 28% of those who got cash were employed full-time; a year later 40% had full-time jobs.

Another stereotype often faced by programs that help the poor was also debunked — that recipients would spend the money frivolously. People used most of the money to pay for basic needs, such as food and household bills, while less than 1% went to buy alcohol or cigarettes and other tobacco products. Recipients of the money tend to pass it forward as well, spending it in their communities, which helps stimulate the economy, and sometimes using it to help other family members, like the woman in Stockton who bought diapers for her grandkids.

We hope for Baltimore to see similar results once its pilot is launched, and if enough cities find success, that it leads to a national program. That doesn’t mean municipalities should back away from other initiatives, such as increasing economic development and job opportunities in long-neglected, low-income neighborhoods. A multipronged strategy is still needed to turn around entrenched poverty that took years to create. But guaranteed income can give families a boost until longer-term solutions come to fruition.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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