Does universal basic income work? Here's how it changed this SF family's life

A newly released report shows that families surveyed from 20 guaranteed income programs primarily used the funds on necessities.

Julian Glover Image
Friday, December 23, 2022
Does universal basic income work? A San Francisco family's story
ABC7 News Race and social justice reporter Julian Glover followed one family in San Francisco's program for a year to see how this money changed their lives.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It's an idea that's sweeping the country: unconditional cash handed out on a monthly basis to families most in need. Universal basic income pilot programs are popping up all across the U.S. But rarely do we get to follow a family and see the impacts these small amounts of cash can have on the recipients. ABC7 News followed one family from one basic income pilot for an entire year, here's what we saw.

From chocolate to sugar cookies, scones and more Deisy Chan loves making sweet treats at the bakery she works at in the Mission.

The early days and long hours of standing can be tiring, but it's all in support of her family.

We first met Deisy in November of 2021 when she and her family of four called a three-bedroom apartment in the Tenderloin home.

Before the pandemic, another couple lived with Deisy and her family and paid half the rent. But that family moved out during the pandemic leaving Deisy's family with the entire bill.

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Then, it was only Deisy, her husband Miguel Senior, and her two boys: 3-year-old Mateo and 13-year-old Miguel Jr.

Deisy speaks Spanish and an indigenous language native to Mexico. She spoke to us in Spanish as she prepared dinner for her boys.

"To live here is expensive," she said. She's paying more than $3,000 a month in rent now that the family moved out.

"It's tough buying things for the kids because I have to save so much for rent," she said.

But saving got easier for Deisy and financial burdens less stressful.

A month before we met her and her family, in October of 2021, she received $350 of unconditional cash.

The payment was the first of six monthly checks as a part of a Basic Income Pilot program.

"It's a great help," she said.

She's able to buy food for her family without worrying if she can afford it. Deisy told us her youngest is growing fast. Now she's able to make sure he has the basics, thanks to the additional cash.

Deisy and her family were selected to be one of the 13 families enrolled in the basic income program run through Compass Family Services.

The San Francisco nonprofit has been around for more than 100 years, focused on safety net programs for families that are unhoused or on the brink of living without shelter.

Compass offers wrap-around services like food assistance and free childcare.

Deisy's youngest, Mateo, is enrolled there. That's how she heard of the program.

The program provided each family $350 a month for six months for a total of just $2,100.

VIDEO: Universal basic income for Californians? Assemblyman breaks it down

AB-65, a bill for universal basic income in California, passed through the state assembly's revenue and taxation committee on Monday April 26, 2021.

"A little bit of money can make a really big difference for the families," said Erica Kisch, executive director of Compass Family Services. "The families are using these funds for basic needs."

Kisch said the basic income pilot was made possible by a $35,000 grant from Wells Fargo.

She said the nonprofit surveyed the families before, during, and after the program concluded.

ABC7 News followed Deisy and her family for the six months of the program.

"One of the words (the families) used when they were describing how the funds impacted them was that it increased their calm... So the idea that families are so stressed out by their finances, or lack of finances, and that affects everything," said Kisch.

There are currently more than 100 active Basic Income programs being tested in all 50 states - most of them following the huge success of a program started in Stockton by former Mayor Michael Tubbs.

Tubbs now leads the group Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. The group is a network of dozens of mayors across the country that have pledged to test the idea of a guaranteed income in their cities.

The locations range in size from major cities from San Francisco, Oakland, and Atlanta to smaller cities like Salisbury, Maryland.

A newly released report by Mayors for a Guaranteed Income shows that families surveyed from 20 guaranteed income programs primarily used the funds on necessities.

The report shows 39% of the fund's recipients received was spent at discount superstores for clothes, food, household goods and hygiene products.

Another 27% of funds were spent at grocery stores, 9% on transportation costs including gas and car repairs, and 7% on housing utilities.

Other notable expenses included loan payments, medical expenses, and tuition.

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"If you're worried about food to feed your children, pay your rent, pay your utilities, buy milk - that's going to impact your mental health, that's going to impact your ability to parent... So just the idea that we could reduce that tension-that stress-and support the families' calm just feels like it's certainly a good use of $350 a month," she added.

Along with the six monthly payments of unconditional cash, the 13 families enrolled in this pilot program received additional help including access to family counseling and money management classes, much-needed help when you're just one unexpected bill away from homelessness.

"The situation that they are facing is they cannot pay their rent or they cannot buy groceries or they cannot pay other bills," said Gerardo Gonzalez, Compass Family Services family and community engagement coordinator.

That's the exact situation Deisy and her family found themselves in when we checked in halfway through the program, some three months in.

We caught up with Deisy over Zoom as the entire family recovered from COVID.

She told us her husband was out of work for two weeks because he was still testing positive for COVID.

Paid sick leave through Deisy and her husband's job kept the family afloat, but still sick, her husband couldn't work his part-time job so money was tight.

Deisy said she's unsure how they would have purchased groceries without the extra cushion from the program. She's grateful for the assistance - and is already saving what she can. She's planning ahead for when her family will no longer have that added help and hopes the family can move into a less expensive apartment to save even more.

Months later, we caught up with Deisy on a busy summer day as she picked up her youngest son from after-school care offered by Compass Family Services.

She's grateful for this support along with the $350 of unconditional cash she's received for the last six months.

With a sense of gratitude and emotion akin to guilt, Deisy told us she wishes even more families could receive this basic income on top of services like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) her two boys already receive.

Her wish is becoming reality as an increasing number of organizations and city governments across the Bay Area, and beyond, test out basic income programs.

The City of Mountain View, which started sending out $500 payments to more than one hundred families just days ago, is the latest city to test out a basic income in the Bay.

"We can definitely call the movement," said Sean Klein, associate director of the Stanford Basic Income Lab. "I don't think we ever thought we would be at this place even a few years ago.

Stanford's Basic Income Lab was launched in 2017 to study the successes and roadblocks of basic income pilots across the country.

Early findings from the lab suggest families spent the money on necessities like rent and food - not drugs and alcohol.

Kline also noted the added assistance allowed adults to look for better-paying, full-time jobs and does not cause reliance on the program, a major argument by naysayers.

"The evidence suggests that unconditional cash is efficient. It's swift. It's much more powerful than in-kind assistance: food, even housing, because it gives people the agency and the means to make the choices they know are right for their family," Kline added.

Kline points to recent examples of the government doling out unconditional cash at large scales as an example of the power these programs could have if applied more broadly.

Just think back to the several rounds of stimulus checks during the onset of the COVID pandemic from the federal government and the State of California.

Or look at the longest-standing basic income program in the country just to our north in Alaska with the "Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend".

For nearly the last four decades residents of the state have received an annual lump sum payment of approximately $1,600. The money is generated through taxes on the state's oil companies.

"Middle and upper-middle-class families receive a tremendous amount of in-kind, unconditional tax benefits from the government. We don't call into question when someone's able to write off the interest on their mortgage, we don't ask them for a urine sample. And yet, when it comes to those who are really in dire straits and need support from the government, who they pay taxes to as well, we call into question their deservingness," Kline said.

When we caught up with Deisy, just weeks after receiving the final check in the pilot program, it was in her new government-subsidized apartment.

She and her family moved in just weeks earlier and now they are able to save money on rent.

Deisy gave us a tour as little Mateo showed us what he's most excited about in his new home: toys. Just like every other kid.

Deisy tells us the six months of unconditional cash has been significant. It allowed the family to be financially secure when her husband lost his job.

It even gave the family enough breathing room to save up to buy new beds and even pay for her 13-year-old to start playing soccer.

For most, these are the basics. For Deisy it's the American Dream. Out of reach for so long, now possible with just a little extra help.

It's a transformation the organization behind the basic income pilot calls a "huge success."

It's been so successful, Compass plans to expand the program to many more families thanks to a newly awarded grant.

"Absolutely, we plan to do more of this," said Kisch.

This is welcome news for Deisy who wants more families to get the help her family did.

"I'm thankful to God that he puts people in my path who want to help me," Deisy said.

Now Compass plans to do the same for so many others.

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