California state lawmakers are ready to talk about universal basic income. But they’re not ready to fund it.
The idea to give everybody — or just lower- and middle-income residents — a monthly cash payment with no strings attached gained national attention after it was proposed by former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
The pandemic and resulting economic hardships borne by low-wage earners has only shown how vulnerable they are, said Santa Clara County Democrat Assemblymember Evan Low.
“More than 36% of California residents are at or near the poverty level” and most Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency, Low told the Assembly Tax and Revenue Committee Monday. “That makes it very clear that one in three Californians lives in poverty, or they’re just one bad day away from becoming homeless.”
His Assembly Bill 65 proposed giving $1,000 monthly payments to residents earning up to 200% of their county’s area median income.
The program would only be open to people who have lived in California for at least three years.
An Assembly committee passed it Monday as a show of support, but lawmakers made clear that’s as far as the proposal will get this year.
Marin County Assemblymember Marc Levine even joked that he was only voting to advance the bill because he was feeling generous on his birthday. “I’m going to give out a present, which is I’m going to support the bill” he said with a laugh.
“I’m not a true believer in UBI,” he added. “But I’m learning about it.”
Levine noted other cities and counties are beginning to experiment with their own basic income programs and said the state should keep an eye on those.
“We’ve seen one or two, but we need to see many, many more to understand what’s right as well as what’s right in specific communities and what helps people,” he said.
The city of Stockton launched its own program in early 2019, which used philanthropic dollars to send 125 residents $500 per month for two years. Research showed the recipients spent the vast majority of their money on essentials like food, housing and other bills, and were more easily able to find jobs, among other benefits.
The program was seen as a success, and now cities including Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco are exploring their own versions.
Republicans and at least one moderate Democrat balked at the cost for a statewide basic income program — which Low’s office estimates could be as high as $129 billion annually.
“I would be open to listening to something about replacing some of our current assistance programs with something like this instead of having a myriad of assistance programs,” said Asm. Kelly Seyarto (R–Murrieta).
Seyarto also said giving $12,000 a year to 18-year-olds would be a “recipe for social disaster” and worried about luring new people to the state when there’s already a dearth of housing and jobs. Under AB65, only people who have lived in California for at least three years would be eligible.
With a price tag nearly as big as the existing state budget, Low and other Democratic lawmakers acknowledged a statewide basic income program isn’t happening anytime soon. But the hearing marked the first time the California Legislature discussed the idea, which Low said is itself a milestone.
“This is not just grandstanding,” he told the committee. “This is to have a deliberative conversation about the policy and how that factors into helping protect everyday Californians.”
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