Los Angeles County is opening a new front in the war on poverty, offering $1,000 a month for the next three years to 1,000 people in its poorest neighborhoods, housed or unhoused, citizens or not, to spend however they see fit.
In the country’s most populous county, where 25% of the children live in poverty, the guaranteed income program, named “Breathe,” is the largest, longest-lasting one yet in the United States.
It’s funded by 2021’s federal American Rescue Plan Act. Attached to it is a confidential research component, funded by The California Endowment, seeking a “sweet spot” of maximum effectiveness for future programs.
Applications open March 31 and close April 13.
“Apply, apply, apply!” County Supervisor Holly Mitchell said at a press briefing March 21, hosted by the county and Ethnic Media Services.
Mitchell was joined by fellow Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of The California Endowment, Carrie Miller, of the county’s Poverty Alleviation Initiative, and University of Pennsylvania researcher Stacia West.
Like any government assistance program, there are eligibility requirements, but speakers at the briefing emphasized their hope to “flip the script” of shaming and patronization that has characterized too many well-intentioned programs before.
“We are pushing the envelope,” Mitchell said, describing the “vast, broad” cross-section of eligible applicants, and the trust that they will know best how to use the money — “whether it’s quitting that second part-time job so they can help children with homework after school, or hiring tutors to help their kids address the learning gap of the past two years.
“If it’s a trip to the San Diego Zoo, that’s ok too, because we all know what those cultural experiences mean for kids in their overall health and well-being. We are trusting these individuals to know what’s best for them and that they’ll spend it in a way to help themselves out of poverty. That’s the whole point.”
“This is the kind of daring, innovative, disruptive leadership one gets to see when women are in charge in this country,” Ross said.
Of those who meet the program’s requirements, 1,000 individuals will be randomly chosen for those monthly tax-free debit-card disbursements.
But for the research component of this pilot project, both those 1,000 and others not chosen will be asked to participate in confidential, twice-annual surveys and interviews by West’s University of Pennsylvania researchers and provided gift cards for their time and trouble.
The information they give will be kept confidential from local staff, said West, who is currently running 31 studies of guaranteed income programs across the country.
The primary model cited for Breathe was in Stockton, where former Mayor Michael Tubbs initiated a program that provided $500 a month for a year. That and similar programs have all been well reviewed.
“Across the country, guaranteed income has already proven to reduce poverty, improve the long-term well-being of families and give residents living on the edge of a fiscal cliff the support they need to breathe a little easier,” Mitchell said.
“This helps the whole community,” Supervisor Kuehl said. “When families do well, their whole neighborhood, their whole community is shown to do better as well. When they have room to breathe, they’re more able to positively contribute to the community.”
“We know that poverty is bad for your health.” Ross noted, explaining why, as leader of California’s largest health foundation, he would be supportive of a guaranteed income pilot program.
“If you want to predict someone’s life expectancy, ask them for their zip code,” he said, for that and “their health status based on issues of poverty and housing and transportation, clean air and clean water and those kinds of things. So that’s why we’re involved.”
The link to apply online can be found at breathe.lacounty.gov, or in Spanish at respire.lacounty.gov. The site includes income eligibility limits for different household sizes and a feature that allows you to tell if your address is within one of the target communities.
Besides English, the online application can be completed in another 20 languages, and oral translations into another 30 will also be available.
Besides online, people can call the community organization SBCC (Strength Based Community Change) at (213) 342-1003 or visit one of 49 drop-in centers, which are listed on the program’s website for help in applying.
Organizers hope the research will help determine the “sweet spot” at which such programs — national policy in some countries, but still rare in the United States — can best break what Mitchell described as “the systemic inequities and structural racism that help perpetuate poverty and have led to many of our communities being unable to build generational wealth.”
“In my heart of hearts, I hope that this program will help inform federal, state, and local policy around our requirements for entitlement programs,” she said.