When I applied to be part of a new guaranteed income program in my city, I was skeptical anyone would want to give me free money. I was drowning in debt while raising my young grandson. When I got the first installment from Oakland Resilient Families, I let the money sit there for a few weeks because I just didn’t believe it was real.
Oakland Resilient Families is giving 600 low-income families in the city $500 a month for 18 months. The guaranteed income pilot is a collaboration between Oakland Thrives, Mayors for Guaranteed Income and UpTogether, a national nonprofit that, for 20 years, has been giving people cash without forcing them to spend it a certain way. They believe trusting and investing in families works better than the welfare systems that make us jump through hoops just to get by.
The cash that I have received for the past year allows me to make life-changing decisions. I sat down and made a plan for the $9,000 I would receive through the pilot. I am paying off my debt and building some credit. I opened a college fund for my grandson. I don’t have to worry about life’s small emergencies. I have the flexibility I need to handle day-to-day issues.
A lot of people and agencies frown upon people who don’t have a lot of money, as if it’s a choice. I didn’t wake up and say that I want to be someone with a low income and with a drug and alcohol addiction. I am valued and worth something, and UpTogether sees me for my strengths. I can do big things, especially when someone believes in me and trusts me. I am capable of making decisions for myself and I have shown I can make things better for myself. I overcame my addiction, and I am working hard to make a good life for myself and my grandson.
I love to hear about other cities running guaranteed income pilots to help people who are struggling to make ends meet. Oakland Resilient Families is one of dozens of guaranteed income pilots across the country. Studies show what I already know from experience: People use their cash payments on basic necessities. There is a new online dashboard that shows that most of the money people get from guaranteed income pilots goes to food, clothing, housing, utilities and transportation. A tiny amount – 4% – goes to fun. That’s okay, because people experiencing poverty are also entitled to joy in life.
It’s a mistake to believe that guaranteed income makes people lazy. In Stockton, California, more people had jobs by the end of that city’s pilot. In my case, I work part-time and I started a nonprofit to help other people experiencing hard times. Guaranteed income gives people freedom to go after opportunities and build financial stability. Over and over again, the pilots show that when you invest in someone, they’ll show you they can move up in life. We also need to remember that the guaranteed income pilots create chances for people to pay it forward in their communities.
I hope that other governments will look at Oakland and these other examples and understand that guaranteed income programs do work. You don’t even have to just give people cash, but rethink all the ways we can do better on things like childcare and healthcare. The entire system meant to help people needs to change. Make it easier for people to get the support they want and need.
The lesson here is that we are experts in our own lives and capable of making choices for ourselves and our families. Yet too many systems have been set up to prevent people like me who live in places that have been neglected from getting ahead.
We can use the Oakland experiment to change the narrative about people who are living with low incomes. We should be seen for what we bring to the table, instead of what we lack. As city leaders try to find answers to problems, they don’t have to look much further than their own residents. We are resilient, smart and have initiative, but could use trust and investment in our lives.
Alisha Roe is a participant in Oakland Resilient Families. She is raising her grandson while working part-time and running her nonprofit, Love Lois.