Opinion: Americans need more than a $1,200 check. A guaranteed basic income is the stimulus we deserve

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The spread of the coronavirus is threatening the social and economic fabric of U.S. communities, and Americans will not emerge from this crisis the same. The historical economic inequity COVID-19 has exposed and amplified necessitates a new social safety net — one that abolishes poverty. Everyone deserves a solid foundation through a basic income.

The federal government has made some moves to help, but the CARES Act was too incremental and piecemeal to match the need laid bare in this time. Expanded unemployment benefits and a one-time stimulus aren’t enough to mitigate the cascading effects of COVID-19, let alone to address the deep structural inequality that the pandemic has exposed and threatens to exacerbate. Americans need bold solutions and we needed them yesterday.

Economic insecurity isn’t a new challenge. Even before this pandemic, many Americans were struggling to get by due to low wages and unstable schedules. Nearly 40% of Americans couldn’t afford an unexpected $400 emergency. People working two or three jobs still couldn’t afford basic necessities, and while the cost of living has skyrocketed, wages have remained stagnant. Wealth and income inequality have reached historical highs, and the average American family still hasn’t recovered from the Great Recession.

Now, it’s these same Americans — already working harder and harder, yet being left further and further behind — who bear the economic brunt of COVID-19. Close to 98% of jobs affected by the virus so far paid less than the national minimum wage. People of color are caught in a double bind: overrepresented both in the low-wage jobs most vulnerable to layoffs, and in the jobs deemed most essential. Those who haven’t been laid off are taking risks for the rest of us. The front lines keeping communities running at grocery stores, farms, and warehouses are barely being paid a living wage.

And it should come as no surprise to anyone that women of color are more likely to be doing essential jobs than anyone else. Women are continuing to perform unpaid and underpaid work — home-health and personal care aides, nurses — that keeps our formal economy running.

In its current form, our social safety net leaves many Americans without a firm foundation to build or stand upon. To build one, we must not only expand and reform current benefits like SNAP, unemployment, and health care, but also add a basic income. I know basic income is right for the moment because I’ve tried it.

Since February 2019, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) has been giving 125 randomly selected Stocktonians $500 per month, for 18 months. Our recipients spend the disbursements on their most basic needs: food, transportation, utilities, and rent, and data from February and March 2020 highlight how receiving unconditional recurring cash enabled folks to prepare for and through the first month of pandemic: amongst SEED participants, spending on sales and merchandise decreased, while spending on food increased.

As we’ve seen in Stockton, unconditional cash provides people the agency to make the right decisions for themselves and their families. A growing chorus of voices that seek to apply nationally the lessons we’ve learned in Stockton, with Senator Kamala Harris and 60 other congressional members called for recurring direct payments; and Representatives Maxine Waters, Mark Pocan, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, and Tim Ryan calling for cash stipends. On Easter Sunday, Pope Francis reaffirmed the moral case for a basic income, to “ acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out. It would ensure and concretely achieve the ideal, at once so human … of no worker without rights.”

While we wait for Congress to rise to the occasion, U.S. mayors and governors must step up, and some have already. California Governor Gavin Newsom and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have each launched disaster relief funds for immigrants excluded from federal relief. I urge mayors who’ve expressed interest in implementing basic income to mirror Stockton’s model to invest directly in their people. How? Leverage public-private partnerships. SEED has paired philanthropic funding with the reach of elected office and the grassroots expertise of the nonprofit sector to ensure that program design matches community needs. And we’ve protected benefits, rather than replacing them. Stockton is here to lead the way, and I invite all to reach out to my office and learn more.

COVID-19 has highlighted our flawed systems, but it didn’t create them.

Mayors, governors and Congress alike must look beyond the current moment and ensure that any cash payments are recurring. Given the feasibility and desire to immediately help those who need it most, we must focus first on cash policies that specifically provide the greatest help to poor and middle-class families.

COVID-19 has highlighted our flawed systems, but it didn’t create them. It has laid bare another illness that has been left unchecked in our country: poverty and economic insecurity. The only vaccine is a truly inclusive social safety net that includes a basic income, ensuring that everyone has a strong foundation for the next pandemic or disruption.

Michael D. Tubbs is the mayor of Stockton, Calif.

Originally Published on MarketWatch

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