Jacob Rostovsky is already fielding questions about enrollment in a basic income pilot program tailored to support transgender and gender non-conforming Palm Springs residents. The program hasn’t started yet — in fact, the application for state funds to get the pilot up and running hasn’t even been submitted. But the need for consistent no-strings-attached financial support is so great that residents are already knocking on Rostovsky’s door.
Rostovsky is the executive director and founder of Queer Works, a Palm Springs-based organization that provides low-cost or free mental health care and affirming treatment to transgender, gender non-binary, and intersex people. He’s also one of the main community leaders shepherding the application process for funds to launch a city-wide guaranteed income program to support transgender and gender non-binary residents.
Guaranteed income, sometimes referred to as universal basic income, was a fringe political idea less than 10 years ago. But now it’s catching on as an effective, evidence-based method of improving overall quality of life, employment retention and mental health. The premise: Give people cash and their lives will get better. For transgender and gender non-binary people who suffer rates of housing insecurity, homelessness, and unemployment that eclipse those of cisgender and gender normative people, unrestricted payments could make a significant difference in their daily lives.
“We’re not even playing at the same level as cis individuals in poverty,” Rostovsky says. “We’re at a whole other level.”
Transgender women have poverty rates that reach as high as 30%, which is nearly three times the rate of the general population, says Bianca Wilson, a senior scholar of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles’ Williams Institute. The rates of poverty are highest for Black and Latinx transgender people, with as much as 41% of Black transgender people reporting that they’ve experienced homelessness. It’s not one factor — housing, transportation, or lack of healthcare access — that contributes to poverty, but the combination of social, economic and racial factors, Wilson says.
Transgender and gender non-conforming people who suffer from low incomes (and the resulting mental health, physical health and quality of life issues) are boxed out from a number of social and economic structures.
“Just the experience of trying to get employment is also impacted by being poor,” Wilson says, explaining that there are the formal barriers, such as being housing insecure and lacking consistent access to facilities, or not having access to reliable transportation. But then there are the cultural barriers, such as when an employer likes what they see in a resume, but is prejudiced against the person sitting in front of them. A 2011 Lambda Legal survey found that 26% of respondents lost work because of their gender identity or expression.
There are federal protections against gender-based housing and employment discrimination, which includes transgender and gender non-binary people, but the statutes can only correct for so much, considering the cyclical nature of poverty, Wilson says. The overwhelming majority, or about 73%, of LGBTQ adults experiencing economic insecurity suffered from poverty as children, according to the Williams Institute, which means that transgender and gender non-conforming adults are punished economically for their LGBTQ+ identity into adulthood.
The idea of offering cash payments to low-earning people first made waves in 2019, when Stockton, California mayor Michael D. Tubbs launched a guaranteed income program for 125 of the city’s residents, who received $500 per month for two years. After two years of providing guaranteed income payments, the city of Stockton found that full-time employment retention increased by 12%, and Rostovsky is hopeful that the potential launch of a program in Palm Springs will result in similarly positive findings.
Guaranteed income was placed center stage in 2020 by Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, with other political heavyweights falling in line with their own proposals to ensure that individuals, families and children experiencing impoverishment had access to more cash on hand. There’s ample evidence that offering cash reduces poverty and increases mental health, which is critical given the high rates of depression in the transgender community and that 40% of transgender people will attempt suicide in their lifetime.
Now, guaranteed income programs are being piloted or formalized in cities across the country, from Chicago to Phoenix to Tacoma. Each program is different, built to meet the needs of those experiencing hardship in each city. For instance, a guaranteed income program in Jackson supports Black moms with 12 monthly payments of $1,000, while a Santa Fe program offers $400 a month to parents under the age of 30 who are enrolled in Santa Fe Community College.
In May 2021, the state of California announced that it would be dispersing $35 million for guaranteed income pilot programs, which is where the Palm Springs program intends to source its funds. The application for funding hasn’t opened yet, but the city council in Palm Springs approved $200,000 in funding for program research that will comprise the bulk of the application.
Rostovsky and others want to design a program that’s equitable and meets the needs of poor and low-earning transgender residents in the city, which he says has historically acted as a haven for marginalized LGBTQ+ people. And while the announcement of funding for the research-based pilot program’s application has been met with pushback from some of the city’s residents, Rostovsky is hopeful that they’ll come to see the monthly payments as needed support to a community that’s been long-overlooked.
Rostovsky says that most of the pushback has been from cisgender residents who don’t understand the economic precarity many trans people navigate, nor that the application for the funding is intended to jumpstart what Rostovsky calls a “research project.” Rostovsky says that he plans to use this time to educate the community on the impact that a basic income program could have for trans residents.
A San Francisco guaranteed income pilot program is going to get off the ground a little sooner than the one slated for Palm Springs, as early as October 2022. The program will be run out of the Mayor’s Office of Transgender Initiatives in partnership with two organizations, The Transgender District and Lyon-Martin Community Health.
With city funding, the partner organizations will disperse $1,200 monthly payments to 55 transgender and gender non-binary residents for a period of 24 months. Whereas in Palm Springs the payments will likely hover around $500, the San Francisco organizations believe that $1,200 is enough money given out over enough time to glean what the impact of having cash on hand will be for those living in the most expensive place in the country.
“This is really [the] prevention of deaths amongst our community,” says J.M. Jaffe, the executive director of Lyon-Martin Community Health.
For a sense of scale, low-income in San Francisco is categorized as an individual making $82,000 or less annually, and Jaffe says that the monthly payments will offer a “night and day” change in the lives of transgender and gender non-binary recipients.
Jaffe and their team at Lyon-Martin, along with The Transgender District, are still in the beginning stages of designing the parameters of the program to figure out what their application selection process will be. The main goal is equitability of the program, while also ensuring that funds will be seen as a gift rather than taxable income, that funds won’t impact a recipient’s federal benefits such as disability payments, and that undocumented recipients will also be able to receive funds even if they don’t have a bank account.
Once the application goes live in October, staff at the two organizations will assist potential recipients in filling out the forms, and ultimately select who the pilot program will include. The funds will be dispersed through the treasury’s office. But as with most guaranteed income pilot programs, the need for support far outweighs the program’s reach. Jaffe says that Lyon-Martin alone sees 3,000 patients annually, 90% of whom live at 200% of the federal poverty line.
“I’m hoping that the city will see how impactful this is and that they can actually make a difference in the trans community’s lives and in our disproportionate experience of poverty,” Jaffe says.
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter.
Ray Levy Uyeda is a Bay Area-based freelance writer who focuses on gender, politics, and activism.