I applied for LA’s basic income program – and the process was startling

·9 min read

Sitting in a Ralphs parking lot overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway at 8am on a Friday, hot and sticky in an ageing wetsuit, I clicked on the link for Big:Leap, Los Angeles’ guaranteed income pilot and the largest program of its kind in the US.

Applications for the program had opened that morning. Participants would be chosen by lottery and the criteria for eligibility were simple: applicants had to be over the age of 18, live in the city of Los Angeles, have one or more dependents, and be living in poverty according to the federal poverty guidelines – a somewhat outdated and controversial method of measuring poverty, but one which, in the absence of anything else, is still used widely. The project’s aim was straightforward, too: to study the effects of giving approximately 3,000 families $1,000 a month in cash with no strings attached.

Related: Californians on universal basic income paid off debt and got full-time jobs

To a single parent who had lost two jobs in 2021, the opportunity to receive an additional thousand dollars a month tax-free in a city where the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,195 seemed like a lifeline. I thought I knew what to expect from the process. I had applied for several aid programs before – CalWorks, CalFresh, MediCal, onerous and detailed applications that delved into my bank accounts, utility bills, rental agreement, child support, income and assets (or lack of them), and they often involved numerous trips to offices to clear up glitches that had tied my hypothetical aid up in a bureaucratic system. During the pandemic, I applied for – and received – $17,500 of SBA money. That application took just minutes to complete.

The approximately 80 questions that the Big:Leap application posed started predictably enough: What is your gender? How many children under the age of 18 do you have?

They soon delved into the personal: How much bodily pain have you had during the past 4 weeks?

Then the application took a nosedive into the deeply intimate:

Have you experienced any of the actions listed below from any current or former partner or partners?

  • Blame me for causing their violent behavior.

  • Shook, pushed, grabbed or threw me.

  • Tried to convince my family, children or friends that I am crazy or tried to turn them against me.

  • Used or threatened to use a knife or gun or other weapon to harm me.

  • Made me perform sex acts that I did not want to perform.

Screen shots from the application

The application took me 45 minutes, several F-bombs and one packet of Kleenex to complete.

It’s the paradox of Big:Leap. The program aims to stop “controlling” people in poverty through policy by no longer dictating what recipients spend government assistance on. But to prove the project’s worth, researchers have developed a control program that felt frustrating and arduous – hurtful, even, at times. “That is proof that we have to get policy to stop forcing people in poverty to prove their need,” said Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton, California.

Stockton in recent years ran a wildly successful two-year guaranteed income pilot, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (Seed). The program achieved the results many politicians and researchers aiming to combat wealth inequality had hoped for: critics of the scheme had argued that untaxed, additional, no-strings income – in Stockton’s case, $500 a month for two years – would quash people’s work ethic and that the money would be spent irresponsibly. Extensive surveys ultimately revealed that the money improved the 200 participants’ job prospects, financial stability, mental and physical health, and overall wellbeing. Only 1% of the money went towards alcohol and tobacco, researchers found.

Since then, other major California cities have launched their own pilots. San Francisco announced its program in September 2020. Oakland followed suit in March. Chicago, Illinois, passed its guaranteed income program in October.

The setup of each of these pilots has varied. The Stockton program had a similar structure to Big:Leap, using a control group and a trial group to draw its conclusions. But it had no criteria for entry other than a Stockton zip code, and potential applicants entered a simple lottery without any initial questionnaire.

Curious about the reactions of other LA residents to the application questions, I went along to one of the walk-in centers across the city, most of which were in the district of Curren D Price, the city councilmember who had initiated the LA scheme. It’s a predominantly working class, Spanish-speaking neighborhood with one of the highest poverty rates in the city. At Price’s office, 16 computer terminals were set up in a room with three bilingual volunteers ready to assist walk-in applicants who might not have the literacy or technology to complete the application at home. A reporter for KCRW, Aaron Schrank, sat outside the room, holding a voice recorder. On Friday, when applications opened, there had been lines around the block. When I visited three days later, 13 of the terminals were occupied, and bored children clutching crayons wandered around while their parents patiently typed away. One woman completed the application in three hours. Another took two.

Schrank told me that two people he’d interviewed early that morning had, like me, been confused and offended by the questions. Luis Riva, a former upholsterer, had told him: “They’re asking too many questions about my health. They’re asking questions that aren’t related to helping people with money. They’re asking other things like how is my health, how do I think, psychological stuff.” Bonnie Morales, who lost her father and then her job during the pandemic, complained: “They asked me about my partner, like if it was a girl or a boy. Like, what does that matter?… Why does it matter if I’m gay, a lesbian, bisexual, or trans? I just find those questions very fucking weird to me, you know … Ask me if I’m starving. Ask me if I can afford a bag of beans. Ask me that.”

A volunteer, Porsha Anderson, acknowledged that many of the applicants had struggled with the questions. “They want to know, ‘Why are they asking me about domestic issues? What am I meant to say? What’s the answer I need to give to get the money?’”

Dr Bo-Kyung Elizabeth Kim, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California Center on Education Policy, Equity and Governance who heads the local research overseers for Big:Leap, explained that the questionnaire includes core questions composed by researchers and questions added by the study sites.

“Both researchers and their political partners are hoping to understand how and why money provided through the program may or may not improve the specific experience of families in poverty,” she said, as well as the challenges that poverty can bring about.

The questions about intimate partner violence in the questionnaire were included by the city of Los Angeles, she said: “We suspect intimate partner violence is a widespread community issue based on police calls for domestic disturbances, but we actually do not have strong data on its prevalence as typically only physical violence is reported,” she noted. “Inclusion of those questions does help LA understand the prevalence of intimate partner violence among applicants, and helps the city determine if guaranteed income can actually help people move away from dangerous relationships.”

The questions on the application were not compulsory, she added. (The disclaimer at the start of the application did state that the questions weren’t obligatory, but there was no way for an applicant to avoid them. Everyone had to click through the entire application before they could be submitted for entry into the lottery.)

The Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti, said that he, as a social scientist, wanted the LA program to have the biggest possible sample size and ask the deepest questions of that sample, to provide solid data for potential government policy aimed at combating poverty. The goal, he said, was to find solutions that allow people to exit poverty, not to simply survive it through cash, food, medical or tuition assistance.

Garcetti said what had convinced him to commit to the pilot were “Angeleno cards” – basic debit cards containing a cash amount handed out to LA residents in need during the pandemic. The cards had the added benefit of allowing the city to track where that money was spent, Garcetti said. After he saw that most of the money was spent on basic necessities such as food, rent and utilities, he became committed to the idea of a guaranteed income scheme that could act as a bellwether of sorts for programs at a federal and state level, he said. The city has since set up a new department to handle Big:Leap and other “community wealth initiatives” aimed at combating poverty.

The difference between traditional social services and the notion of a guaranteed income, Garcetti said, was “the trust that [the program] places in everyday people to make decisions for themselves”.

“Our addiction to poverty costs us trillions of dollars. I believe that we can save money spent on criminal justice, on lost economic opportunity, through this scheme and offer that up as a value proposition to federal government,” he added. “We treat the poor like children who can’t do anything for themselves. We treat the rich like spoilt teenagers and let them get away with anything.”

Poverty is disabling, and poverty is undignified. Seeking aid in the United States often still involves a double loss of privacy – first by divulging swathes of information that must be disclosed as proof of need: bank accounts, spending habits, rent, income, utilities etc, then by accepting aid that comes with strict caveats, an individual is forced to submit to the intrusive control of a government that does not trust poor people to make the right decisions for their own survival and wellbeing. Individual freedom comes with wealth. Wealth that is often accumulated generationally. Wealth that is often untaxed. Wealth that has bought a trust that the poor cannot afford.

Guaranteed income programs are bravely attempting to find a solution to seemingly unresolvable problems. But the process to get there, at least in LA, is arduous.

Perhaps one of the most telling questions on the Big:Leap application was “What does trust mean to you?” For Councilmember Price, trust means relying on the community for support. For Dr Kim, trust is something that should be given to those in poverty.

“We’ve been so controlling of people in poverty,” she said. “They’re not in control of their own money. People know how to use their money – they just don’t have any. The idea of this project is just to give them some room.”

When applications for the Big:Leap closed, more than 59,000 out of nearly 500,000 eligible Angelenos had applied. The pilot’s website had over 350,000 visits, and the city information line had taken 1,469 calls about the program.

After arriving home from the Price’s offices, I pulled on what’s known in the catering world as “black bistro” and went to serve cocktails at a private party in a $32m home in Beverly Hills for $25 an hour. It struck me that the entire budget for the Big:Leap was $40 million. The yawning gap between the insanely wealthy and the horrifically poor had never felt so acute.

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