As It Happens·Q&A

Why the mayor of Compton is launching a guaranteed basic income pilot

Mayor Aja Brown says the guaranteed income program can help her city address inequality.

800 residents set to receive cash relief for the next 2 years under privately funded program

Compton, Calif., Mayor Aja Brown, pictured here at a voter registration event in September, is bringing a guaranteed basic income pilot to her city. (Getty Images)

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Mayor Aja Brown is bringing a guaranteed income program to Compton, Calif.

She announced earlier this week that the Compton Pledge ensures a basic income to 800 of the city's residents over the next two years, focusing on those who have the most difficulty making ends meet.

The mayor says this program can help her city address inequality and provide a sense of relief for single-parent households, people working multiple jobs, undocumented immigrants, formerly incarcerated residents and more. 

Private donors have funded Compton's guaranteed income program, which is set to provide residents with $300 to $600 U.S. dollars monthly starting later this year. The pilot is based on a smaller study in Stockton, Calif., five hours north of Compton, that took place last year.

Here is part of the mayor's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

What would a program like this have done for your family when you were growing up?

My mother was a poor, single mother who worked very hard to provide for my brother and I. I know for a fact that a guaranteed income would have had a transformative difference in her ability to just have peace of mind and to actually plan for things in the future. To actually have savings and plan for unplanned expenses that ultimately pushed my family into different levels of instability on many occasions growing up.

You've said elsewhere that your family was just an emergency away from having to move. You think a lot of families are in that situation?

Oh, absolutely. I know for a fact that many families are in that situation and facing even more instability with the global pandemic.

People need an additional supplement to their income to really improve their quality of life, spend more time with their children, make longer-term decisions and also to get out of the cycle of relying on predatory lending to bridge the gap with their basic needs.- Aja Brown, mayor of Compton, Calif.

Lots of places, including Canada, have considered the idea of a universal basic income. They've played with it, but no one has really gone through 100 per cent. Why did you think Compton would be a good place to have this program?

I watched the mayor of Stockton, Michael Tubbs, implement a similar study a couple of years ago…. After the outcome, I looked at the data. I was even more motivated to implement something similar in Compton. 

Obviously, I've had my own personal experience, but the participants really echoed and reinforced what I knew to be true. People need an additional supplement to their income to really improve their quality of life, spend more time with their children, make longer-term decisions and also to get out of the cycle of relying on predatory lending to bridge the gap with their basic needs.

What did you see in that study? What was revealed that showed this is something that could actually make that big a difference?

Really just the outcomes. Seeing people that were stuck in a dead-end job [who] couldn't interview because they couldn't afford to take [time] off of work. [They were] able to do that and have additional upward mobility. I watched participants be able to have savings for the first time in their lives. When unplanned expenses arose, they were able to meet them. Some families were able to enrol their children in extracurricular activities.

It really provided new opportunities for participants and ultimately improved the quality of the fabric of their community.

About 800 residents of Compton will be able to take part in this. Who will be allowed to participate?

We are reaching out to all households to be able to screen them and their ability to participate, but we're really focusing on the working poor. Those that obviously have worked two and three jobs and still are not able to meet the gap.

We're focusing on single mothers, single fathers, single heads of households, including the elderly that are taking care of their grandchildren because of extraneous circumstances.

We're focusing on those that were formerly incarcerated, the undocumented that do not qualify for additional federal or government aid, especially at a time in this pandemic where unemployment and underemployment has mushroomed.

We're really focusing on ensuring that we get a broad sense of all of our community members that's also reflective of our city's demographics.

Just for people to understand, this is not like welfare. This is a different kind of a program. How does it work?

Absolutely. This is not welfare. This is not meant to replace welfare. This is simply a basic supplement to income. 

Our particular pilot will provide additional financial literacy tools, empowerment, free chequing accounts, a different way for people to actually learn and be exposed to different financial habits. 

The monthly supplement will not impact any additional aid that they are receiving. We're hoping to be able to measure what this will actually do to their decision making and then also their ability to experience less trauma within their lives as well.

What are some of the stories you're hearing from people in Compton who are struggling [in] the way that this supplement would help them? 

People have a hope for relief. There's definitely a need for additional government stimulus in the U.S. 

We've received one stimulus payment. People are still waiting for the next wave of government aid. There is a huge gap between those that are unemployed and actually being able to meet their basic needs. 

We have more people relying on our food pantries, more people relying on additional outreach opportunities to buy or to have access to Pampers and just basic necessities. 

This is something that we've heard tremendous feedback [on] and definitely a need and interest from residents.

People raise their fists as they take part in a march against racial inequality and police brutality that was organized by Black Lives Matter in Seattle in June. Brown says basic income 'can be a cornerstone' of 'recovery and relief' from systemic inequality. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)

You mentioned that among those who could benefit from this are the undocumented, the immigrants in your country who don't have the paperwork. What's it like for them? 

The undocumented do not qualify for stimulus or additional government aid…. Many of the undocumented population are just without income all of a sudden and they've been without income since the onset of the pandemic. 

For many, there isn't a break in when their income or opportunities to generate income will be restored. Household compositions have changed, people have had multiple generations living under one roof and are really bracing the storm on how they can weather this significant setback.

We had a similar pilot project in three cities in Ontario. It was a government-funded program that was cancelled by an incoming government, the government we have now. One of the problems with anything like this is that a guaranteed basic income has to be guaranteed, doesn't it?

Absolutely. That is one major factor [of our program]. That income will be guaranteed. 

From a simple standpoint, you cannot plan if you don't have all of the factors in place. People need to understand where their income is coming from just to help them navigate better for their families.

What are the chances, then, that you think this could be a permanent and guaranteed income for those people?

We're very hopeful and we're actually planning at the same time on a parallel track how this program can be sustainable. [We're] looking at different financing models. There's different pilots happening in other countries. We're focusing on how we can build sustainable infrastructure to keep these payments ongoing, especially for this subset of the population. 

We're watching in your country and in ours that there is a growing awareness of injustice and inequality. I think Black Lives Matter has brought that out clearly. Do you think that awareness helps get the funding you need for a program like this?

Awareness is key and I think awareness is critical to breaking down stigmas. [We're] educating the broader public on what guaranteed income actually is and what it can do. I think that, obviously, with the growing unrest and the uncovering of the systemic inequalities that our nations are dealing with ... guaranteed income definitely can be a cornerstone of that recovery and relief.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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