The mayor of Oakland, California, on Tuesday announced a privately funded program that will give low-income families of color $500 per month in a trial program similar to the “universal basic income” idea that gained national attention when proposed by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
Under the 18-month long pilot that is to be up and running by summer, 600 families will receive $500 a month to spend as they choose, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement.
While the concept isn’t new—a number of mayors have launched small, temporary programs across the country in a coordinated campaign to convince Congress to adopt a national guaranteed income program—it is the first to limit eligibility strictly to black, indigenous, and people of color communities.
“Our vision is an Oakland that has closed the racial wealth gap, and where all families thrive,” Schaaf said in a video statement. “We believe that guaranteed income is the most transformative policy that can achieve this vision and whose time has come.”
“We believe that poverty is not personal failure, it is policy failure,” she added.
In an apparent explanation for why white families were excluded from the program, Schaaf cited the Oakland Equity Index, which shows that white households in Oakland on average make about three times as much annually than black households.
But the race-based eligibility criteria raise questions about the legality and ethics of the initiative.
Civil rights attorney Harmeet K. Dhillon, civil rights attorney and founder of the Center for American Liberty, appeared on Fox News’ “The Ingraham Angle” to discuss the initiative.
“This is obviously immoral—making distinctions based on race for money and distributing money—but is it constitutional?” Laura Ingraham asked.
“It’s illegal on multiple grounds,” Dhillon replied. “The United States Supreme Court has long ruled that any race-based classifications are ‘noxious,’ is one word that’s used, ‘pernicious,’ is another word that’s used. And any such categorizations are subject to strict scrutiny when the government is imposing them.”
Dhillon added that the California constitution contains specific provisions that make it illegal for benefits to be handed out on the basis of race.
“Oakland is going to say in court that this is being funded by private, nonprofits that are giving this money, but it’s still the government handing it out, it is still excluding people on the basis of race. Our country was founded on the basis that we don’t do that and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution absolutely forbids this type of race-based classification, so it’s like there was no lawyer involved in designing this ridiculous program.”
Other critics of the program, including labor unions, have expressed concern that such expensive programs could force cuts to other safety net programs like Social Security and food stamps.
Schaaf dismissed such concerns, saying at a press conference on Tuesday that “the social safety net programs must remain.”
“We believe that those safety net programs should not go away, but should be supplemented with unconditional cash that gives families the dignity and flexibility to meet their needs,” she said.
The pilot, called the Oakland Resilient Families program has so far raised $6.75 million from private donors including Blue Meridian Partners, a national philanthropy group. Besides the controversial race-based eligibility criteria, those who qualify must have at least one child under 18 and income at or below 50 percent of the area median income, which is around $59,000 per year for a family of three.
Half the spots are reserved for people who earn below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $30,000 per year for a family of three. Participants will be randomly selected from a pool of applicants who meet the eligibility requirements.
Oakland’s project is also significant because it is one of the largest efforts in the United States so far. Its backers also hope it will fuel the adoption of a federal guaranteed income program.
“We have designed this demonstration project to add to the body of evidence, and to begin this relentless campaign to adopt a guaranteed income federally,” Schaaf said.
During the 1990s, the U.S. welfare system was overhauled, shifting the focus away from giving cash unconditionally to one that focused on a work-oriented system.
Robert Rector, senior research fellow of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation and a leading authority on poverty and welfare programs, told The Epoch Times that the change slashed the poverty rate among children roughly in half while reducing dependence and increasing employment.
He warned about returning to policies of unconditional aid—like guaranteed income programs—which he called “extremely expensive but also very harmful to the poor themselves, because when you do that you’re pushing them toward the social margin.”
Rector said that an expansion of welfare programs creates disincentives to work, adding that it’s important for various reasons to have a working adult in a household—including the fact that it initiates social contacts, creates role models for children, and improves the psychological well-being of the individuals.
“It’s a huge cultural trap that you’re creating, by creating this artificial environment where the poorest people are kind of set aside and told, ‘You’re not expected to work or do anything,’” he said.
Nicholas Giordano, a professor of political science at Suffolk Community College in New York, told The Epoch Times that, in Finland and Canada, attempted pilot programs for universal basic income were terminated early due to the massive costs and the little benefit they provided.
Bowen Xiao contributed to this report.