“There Is Nothing More Urgent Than This.” Google Backs Guaranteed Income to Relieve Homelessness

“There Is Nothing More Urgent Than This.” Google Backs Guaranteed Income to Relieve Homelessness

There is growing momentum behind the concept of guaranteed income — that is, programs that provide recurring direct cash payments to ease poverty. Pilots have been rolled out around the country — more than 150 to date — and preliminary analyses show that it’s an approach that works. In areas where it has been tested, guaranteed income  (also called universal basic income, or UBI) has led to reduced homelessness, increased employment and improved mental health outcomes among participants, as Business Insider reported recently. 

In the world of philanthropy, there has been increasing interest in guaranteed income pilots, specifically from tech givers. In a 2021 IP piece, Philip Rojc called guaranteed income “Silicon Valley’s favorite poverty fix,” and ticked off a list of supporters, including Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey and Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, who helped create the Economic Security Project. Dorsey, in particular, has championed the concept, supporting the Mayors For a Guaranteed Income campaign, which has become a major force behind the idea. He also joined MacKenzie Scott and others in supporting a guaranteed income program for artists in San Francisco

Other philanthropies have stepped up, too, including the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which is supporting a Flint, Michigan-based pilot, called RxKids, that provides cash to expectant and new mothers. And a number of funders, including Google, Blue Meridian Partners, the George Kaiser Foundation and Schusterman Family Philanthropies, support GiveDirectly, which provides cash transfers to communities in the U.S. and around the world. In the era of COVID in particular, direct cash giving has risen in popularity among grantmakers, both through guaranteed income pilots and other means.

Now, Google is supporting a guaranteed income pilot in San Francisco, its own backyard. The five-year randomized control trial, called It All Adds Up, will focus specifically on families at high risk of homelessness. For the pilot, 225 families nearing the end of their rental subsidy allowances will be randomly selected to receive $1,000 a month for a year. A control group of 225 families will receive $50 a month. The program, which will run for five years, will be evaluated by New York University’s Housing Solutions Lab.  

The initiative was developed with two nonprofits, Compass Family Services and Hamilton Families, that have a long history supporting Bay Area families experiencing homelessness. J-PAL North America, a global research center based at MIT, is also a funding partner. 

“There is nothing more urgent than this”

Google’s support for It All Adds Up stands out. Even though techies tend to like the idea, we haven’t seen many commitments for guaranteed income from corporations themselves. The program is also distinctive in that it focuses specifically on the impact of direct cash payments on families’ access to stable housing. Google is supporting the initiative through its philanthropic arm, Google.org, as part of a larger, $1 billion effort “to help increase the Bay Area’s housing supply and support organizations on the front lines of homelessness.” 

Google clearly sees guaranteed income as central to that strategy, as Adrian Schurr, Google.org’s regional giving lead, said in a written statement: “Five years ago, we committed $1 billion to help address the Bay Area’s housing shortage and a critical part of that work has been cash transfer. There are a lot of folks nibbling at the edges of what this idea could be. Housing stipends, rental assistance. Matched savings accounts. We thought: Let’s just go full force. Particularly when it comes to family homelessness — with kids actively experiencing the trauma of housing instability — there is nothing more urgent than this.” 

Compass Family Services and Hamilton Families have been working with Google.org for several years to develop It All Adds Up, and have been enrolling families in the pilot since last November. Both organizations were already providing temporary rental subsidies for families experiencing homelessness. But when the subsidies run out, families are at high risk of becoming homeless again, given San Francisco’s high rents and low inventory of affordable housing. It All Adds up will be focused specifically on those families. 

“When that housing subsidy ends, families have to have increased their income enough to be able to pay full rent, and that’s a heavy lift for anyone,” said Erica Kisch, the CEO of Compass Family Services. “So it’s a difficult transition; we want them to be successful and they want to be successful. It makes sense to test it here, to create a soft landing for this particular population of families that are going to be exiting the subsidy. We think that the program will make the difference for families in terms of long-term and lasting stability, which is the goal.”

About 30 families are already enrolled in It All Adds Up, and Hamilton Families CEO Kyriell Noon says the extra cash they receive can yield small changes that make a world of difference. As an example, he pointed to a dad whose family is participating in the pilot. The additional cash enabled him to take his daughter to see the movie “Paw Patrol,” the kind of treat the family could not otherwise afford. “It was healing for him as a parent to be able to finally say yes and to take his daughter to something that gave her joy,” Noon said. “And afterward, when it was time for bed, he told her to go to her room —and she actually had a room to go to.”

An old idea whose time has come

As many supporters point out, guaranteed income isn’t a new idea. Julius Caesar practiced a form of it in 46 B.C., and Business Insider traced support for the idea from Thomas Paine in the late 1700s through politician Andrew Yang in 2020. Today, the concept is being tested in communities around the country (for more information, see the Guaranteed Income Pilots Dashboard, created by the Stanford Basic Income Lab and the Center for Guaranteed Income Research).

The federal government has also experimented with programs approximating direct cash, for example, when the child tax credit was expanded during COVID, providing additional dollars for low-income families. The move resulted in the largest one-year drop in child poverty on record, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The expansion lasted just a year, and after it ended, child poverty more than doubled

Despite demonstrated benefits, guaranteed income programs have their share of detractors. Conservatives like Oren Cass, the executive director of American Compass, told the New York Times, “A permanent and society-wide system to provide for everyone would destroy fundamental elements of the social contract and create the wrong incentives for people as they make choices about their life’s course,” he said. “You can’t pilot that.”

But Hamilton Families’ Noon cites the economic benefits of programs like It All Adds Up for society as a whole. “All the research is showing that people use the funds for things like food and car repairs and employment-related needs — you know, things that people need to survive and to thrive,” he said. “It’s a preventive measure; it might be giving money away, but it is saving money in the long run. It’s like getting a shot versus going to the emergency room; give folks a little bit of money upfront so they won’t fall through the safety net, costing a lot of money and a lot of trauma. Homelessness is incredibly traumatic, and it gets paid forward later on: The greatest predictor of adult homelessness is being homeless as a child. So let’s do what we can to keep kids from being homeless.” 

Noon believes guaranteed income is an idea that’s time has finally come. “What we’re trying to get at with this five-year study is to push it from pilot to policy so that it’s ultimately not a small, privately funded experiment, but a large intervention that changes poverty in America,” he said. “We want to take this dataset to city hall and to Sacramento and to Washington and say, ‘This actually does work. Please implement this at scale so that we can lift a bunch of families out of poverty.’ That’s really the point.”

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