Published: FEB. 7, 2022 2:22 PM PT

Pollard is the director of San Diego for Every Child, working to cut the experience of child poverty in San Diego County in half by 2030, and lives in Middletown. Rutland is founder of Income Movement, an organization focused on grassroots organizing for guaranteed basic income, and lives in Portland, Ore.

San Diego has joined a growing list of cities advancing the idea of a guaranteed income with the launch of the San Diego for Every Child Guaranteed Income Project pilot program. Guaranteed income is the future of human service benefits — demonstrating that unconditional cash payments create lasting economic security and foster community.

Guaranteed income is rooted in racial and gender justice, as social justice starts with economic equity. During the 1960s and 1970s, a guaranteed minimum income was backed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panthers Party and the National Welfare Rights Organization, a group led by Black moms. A guaranteed income policy affirms that everyone in our community, including our youngest members, deserve to fully develop their capabilities, reach their full potential and lead self-directed lives.

Critical to these guaranteed income pilot projects is that each program has been customized to its community, with neighborhood engagement from the onset. Too often, policies and programs are crafted by people in positions of privilege who have limited lived experience with the problem or issue at hand. This often leads to the more punitive social safety net approaches seen since the 1960s, based on the antiquated idea that people living in poverty are poor because of their own “bad decisions” and thus cannot be trusted with money.

Our country’s vast inequality is due to poor policy choices, not individual ones.

San Diego for Every Child partnered with the Income Movement to lay out a community engagement plan to center the input of partner organizations and city residents closest to the challenges we are addressing. During the community engagement sessions, program staff and partner organizations listened to residents to better understand the obstacles to living a sustainable life — making decisions by collaborating with those affected by the project rather than just those set to deploy it.

The reality is the economy has never worked as it should for all community members. Forty-four percent of all American workers are low-wage workers earning a median income of $18,000 a year. Those holding these jobs are disproportionately women and people of color.

The pandemic has set women’s career advancement back years, with nearly 1.1 million fewer women in the workforce than there were in February 2020. The median household wealth of a White high school dropout is greater than that of a Black college graduate. These realities are unacceptable.

Change is underway in San Diego County. Currently, 150 families with at least one child under the age of 12 living in several ZIP codes in San Diego and National City have been notified that they’ve been selected to receive $500 monthly payments for 24 months. Payments will begin in March, and data will be collected to see how the guaranteed income impacts their lives and well-being.

As we’ve started to enroll families in the program, both the excitement and sighs of relief are real. Families are relieved to know that this program will serve them with dignity and respect as a stabilizing force in tumultuous times. Many have shared their excitement about the investments they will make in their education, childcare and necessities.

Data from Stockton’s first year of a guaranteed income pilot demonstrated that recipients found full-time employment at more than twice the rate of those who did not receive the $500 payments. They were also able to pay down debt, save more and plan. Beyond the financial benefits — and perhaps more importantly — the cash began to diminish the tremendous stress that anyone who has ever experienced economic insecurity knows all too well.

Recipient families, both parents and children, were able to sleep better, had less anxiety, improved their relationships and experienced less physical fatigue. This is the real individual, collective and lasting wealth of such interventions.

California lawmakers were the first to pass — unanimously — statewide funding for a guaranteed income program. Direct cash in the form of stimulus checks and monthly Child Tax Credit payments have also grown in support at the federal level. Connecting the work in San Diego with these larger efforts roots our pilot with shifting approaches to anti-poverty programs and can inspire deeper community engagement in the policy creation process.

The pandemic has exposed the foolishness of blaming individuals for structural and systemic problems.

We have the chance to truly build back better by creating solutions that are designed for those experiencing the problem and responsive to community needs.

In the richest country in the world, we can shift our priorities to ensure that prosperity and opportunity are equitable.