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Tacoma gave families $500 a month for a year. Could something similar happen across the state?

Tacoma-Panorama.jpg
Patrick Rodriguez
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CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
A Nov. 6, 2012, photo of Downtown Tacoma taken from the McKinley neighborhood.

State lawmakers, led by Democrat Rep. Liz Berry, held their first public hearing on a bill that would provide two years of unrestricted monthly payments for up to 7,500 Washington residents who meet specific criteria.

Dubbed the Evergreen Basic Income Pilot Program, the payments would range from about $900 - $2,100 per month depending on where a participating resident lives. That range reflects the fair market rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in counties across Washington.

Part of being eligible for the proposed program includes having an income that does not exceed 200% of the federal poverty level. For a single person, that means living off an income of around $27,000 or less per year, and about $55,000 or less per year for a family of four. According to census data, about 10% of Washingtonians are living at or below the federal poverty level.

“Everyone in Washington should be able to meet their basic needs and care for their loved ones,” said Berry at the hearing. “We know that giving people cash with no strings attached works. With basic incomes, more people are able to afford food and housing, pay off debt, get full-time jobs, save for emergencies, and get the physical and mental health support they need.”

Listen to public testimony from the hearing

This isn’t the first time this program has been proposed. A similar bill died in the last legislative session. But this time, the bill comes on the heels of a recently completed pilot program in Tacoma, and in the midst of dozens of basic income programs happening across the country that are providing some preliminary data.

For the last year, the city of Tacoma, in partnership with United Way of Pierce County and Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, gave 110 families $500 per month to spend on whatever they wanted. The program reported that prior to the pandemic roughly 40% of households in Tacoma were “struggling to make ends meet.” The program targeted families living in the Eastside, Hilltop, South Tacoma, and South End neighborhoods.

The Growing Resilience In Tacoma, or GRIT, program was an experiment to see how a guaranteed income would impact a family on the edge of poverty. The more than half a million dollars needed to fund the program came from a mix of grants and private donors. The final payment went out in December.

Initial data show the families spent almost half the money on retail sales - places like Walmart and Target. The next largest category was food and groceries. Then, household bills. There have also been some anecdotal positives from the program as well.

“We had some younger kids that were able to play football and soccer and get new cleats for the Special Olympics,” said Abigail Lawson. Lawson directed the program for United Way of Pierce County.

Lawson said another family was able to clean up their credit enough to finally get approved for a home loan.

Stephanie Bartella, 46, told KNKX last June that being selected for the program meant she didn't have to look for a second job and could spend more time with her family.

A woman with long graying hair wearing eyeglases sits in what looks like a bookstore with a coffee in front in front of her on the table softly smiling at the camera.
Courtesy of United Way of Pierce County
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Stephanie Bartella, 46, was randomly selected to participate in Tacoma's guaranteed income pilot program.

Researchers at the Center for Guarantee Income Research at the University of Pennsylvania are looking at Tacoma’s data. They said the anecdotes are promising but more rigorous analysis is needed to know the exact impact of the program on specific indicators like food insecurity, and health, as well as income.

Their final report is expected next year.

Because of its positive impact so far, Lawson called the end of the program “bittersweet.” She is now working with families on readjusting their unique household budgets and navigating the complex web of social services that exist.

For a household at 100 - 200% percent of the poverty level, like the ones in this program, even minor shifts in a budget can impact the types of assistance available. For example, one family’s income was just $22 too much each month to qualify for assistance. That’s called the “benefits cliff” — they make too much money to receive benefits but not enough money to get by without them.

“We wanted to come in and demonstrate the efficacy of guaranteed income,” Lawson said. “It seems we’re really on track to do that. Now we’re turning a lot of our efforts toward advocacy.”

That includes supporting a statewide initiative for a guaranteed income.

At the bill’s first public hearing on Jan. 11, most of the comments came from advocacy organizations and the majority were in support of the bill as they discussed the positive impact unrestricted cash payments would have on children and other vulnerable populations.

Washington residents were split on the issue with some speaking forcefully against the bill.

“We are enabling instead of teaching our communities how to get out of poverty,” one woman said. “I came from poverty and we stood up and we pulled our bootstraps and we made it. And everybody has that opportunity.”

Another woman was desperate for the bill to move forward. She said she left an aerospace career to take care of her sick mother and after running through her savings, she’s now close to eviction.

“I’m not sitting around asking for a handout. With basic income, it would allow me not to stress between rent and paying my light bill.”

Many Americans were introduced to the idea of a basic income as part of Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign in which his platform included $1,000 universal basic income for every American adult. Most Americans experienced a cash infusion during the pandemic when the federal government disbursed stimulus payments. But there are just a few income programs at the state level.

A program in Washington would join the State of Alaska, which has long offered a yearly cash payment to every resident, and the State of California which announced a monthly guaranteed income pilot program in 2022 that prioritizes pregnant people and those who are aging out of foster care.

There are dozens of guaranteed income pilot programs, like Tacoma’s, currently taking place across the country at the local level. Researchers are closely watching their progress — and the setbacks.

Stacia West and Amy Castro, co-founders of the Center for Guaranteed Income Research, said the barriers to implementing programs like these are two-fold: market drivers that make poverty so profitable for some people that there aren’t any incentives to solve the problem, and ideology.

“We’ve gotten ourselves into this position where we’ve accepted conditions as they are and we ought not to,” Castro said. “There’s this failure of imagination to rethink and say ‘hey it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way.’”

Castro and West said they are interested in understanding the material impacts of these programs like how people spend the money. But the more important question is looking at how stabilizing someone’s income month-to-month supports their mental, emotional, and physical health first.

“If we are able to calm that income volatility with a guaranteed income, do we then see reductions in stress and anxiety?” said West. “Do we see people imagining a different future for themselves or taking time to spend with children or to go back to school or get a better job?”

Being poor traps people in a cycle of survival that prevents them from being able to plan for the future, Castro said. A guaranteed income can help break that cycle, and create happier, healthier, more productive citizens.

"It feels like a moral and economic imperative at this point to try something new."
Abigail Lawson, GRIT program director

“The idea behind basic income is that people are the experts on their own lives,” Castro said.

“Not only does poverty show up as poor public health indicators but also poor well-being indicators for yourself and your kids and your relationships. And so it really begs the question of who gets to be human, and for a long time in this country we tie that to how people do or do not perform for the market and that’s just fundamentally flawed.”

Castro said programs like Tacoma’s pilot and others across the country will provide the data and evidence that’s needed to help drive public policy. And that’s new.

“When it comes to the social safety net, it’s always been driven by ideology,” Castro said.

“I see mayors of cities, in many cases who are women and people of color, saying we’re going to lead with data, we’re going to lead with science, and we’re not going to wait. And it speaks to the power of coalition building across different levels of government that we often forget about.”

Lawson said she’s seen that in her own work in Pierce County. The biggest opposition to the program stems from people’s beliefs about who is and isn’t deserving of help.

“Guaranteed income goes against these narratives that have been so strongly held within modern America and for so many folks it’s understandably really, really uncomfortable,” Lawson said.

“And I think having many people go hungry every night is also really uncomfortable. It feels like a moral and economic imperative at this point to try something new and guaranteed income is something new-ish and we’re seeing that it works.”

Mayowa Aina reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. Mayowa started her public radio career at KUOW in Seattle. She's worked at NPR in Washington, D.C. and Alaska Public Media before moving back to her hometown of Tacoma to work at KNKX.
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