Moving San Francisco’s Guaranteed Income Programs From Pilot to Policy

A family and two pedestrians walking down a San Francisco crosswalk

Image by Sergio Ruiz

During the pandemic, federal stimulus funds sent as cash transfers gave many people the money they needed to survive. Organizations across the country started cash transfer programs to help those who needed it most. Hundreds of thousands of people relied on government or nonprofit assistance to stay afloat. These bold moves helped bring guaranteed income to the forefront of a national conversation on how best to alleviate poverty and tackle growing income inequality. SPUR recently participated in an effort to begin turning local guaranteed income programs into permanent policies.

In California, guaranteed income programs have found particularly fertile ground. The 2019 Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, or SEED, led by then-Mayor Michael Tubbs, demonstrated that a guaranteed income helps people find better employment, improves health, and enabled people to take risks that helped them become economically secure. The success of SEED, the need exacerbated by the pandemic and the efforts of many longtime advocates have contributed to the rise of many other guaranteed income pilots in cities and counties across the state. In 2021, the State of California decided to get in on the action and set aside $35 million for guaranteed income pilot projects, with those pilots expected to start running soon.

In the Bay Area, guaranteed income pilots are operating in cities from South San Francisco to Marin. Multiple pilot programs currently operate in the City of San Francisco, with one such program focusing on supporting artists and another focused on Black and Pacific Islander mothers and young children. Guaranteed income is increasingly embraced as an effective and efficient way to alleviate poverty. With so many pilots operating, it is time to begin looking at how we can move guaranteed income from pilots to policy.

To help promote the move from pilot to policy, SPUR served as a part of San Francisco’s Guaranteed Income Advisory Group, convened to advise the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the mayor and various city departments. The group brought together researchers, direct service providers, advocates and community members with the goal of making recommendations on how the city could build an effective guaranteed income program.

Our advisory group convened over many months, meeting regularly to learn from experts across a variety of fields. Over time, we developed a shared belief and understanding in the power of direct and unconditional cash transfers to help alleviate poverty and develop meaningful progress towards creating a more equitable and sustainable San Francisco. We believe that San Francisco needs to invest in its existing and future guaranteed income projects to bring them to scale as policies and programs that can help everyone dealing with economic insecurity in our city.

Together the advisory group and city staff wrote a report with recommendations on how to build effective guaranteed income policy in San Francisco. The advisory group recommended that the city:

  • Coordinate and align pilots and policies through a centralized guaranteed income unit.
    • Establish a centralized staff function for guaranteed income pilots. City staff will be the point people for guaranteed income programs and will provide technical assistance, data insights, oversight and leadership for research and evaluation practices.
    • Create a working group to coordinate citywide guaranteed income pilots and policy. Include representatives from every pilot program in addition to key city agencies to strengthen communication, alignment and advocacy for procedure and policy changes.
  • Center community voices in the planning, implementation and evaluation of guaranteed income work.
    • Focus on racial equity and target periods of critical transition. Use a “life course” approach to identify interventions during sensitive life stages that can shift trajectories, reduce disparities and increase wellbeing.
    • Support greater emphasis on community research and planning. Promote and uplift authentic, in-depth community planning and research processes that build trust and result in community-driven pilot design, implementation and evaluation.
    • Change the narrative from scarcity and “deservedness” to abundance and dignity. Philanthropy can seed funding for initial research to develop a better understanding of key audiences, content, messengers and outreach channels.
  • Pursue structural, sustainable and scalable reforms and strategies.
    • Pursue strategies to strengthen and expand cash supports through the tax system. Engage in advocacy to permanently expand the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit; examine the potential to scale up local cash transfers through San Francisco’s Working Families Tax Credit.
    • Make deeper investments in assets for families and children. Leverage San Francisco’s existing child savings account infrastructure to provide a guaranteed income for families with young children and to create “baby bonds” by increasing equity-based deposits.
    • Continue to pursue reforms that will increase access to public benefits. Strengthen existing efforts to implement an integrated, modernized system of benefits that provides stronger support to individuals and families, ensuring financial security and economic dignity.

Guaranteed income is one of the most effective — if not the most effective —tools for alleviating poverty. San Francisco is well positioned to be the first city in the nation to establish a permanent guaranteed income policy. By following the advisory group’s recommendations, San Francisco could transform promising pilots into effective policy.

Read the full report