a middle aged woman directs to younger dancers
Choreographer Marika Brussel (left) is one of 190 artists receiving money from the San Francisco Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists. (Photo/LexMex Art)

‘Cash improves lives’: In S.F., Black-Jewish group embraces guaranteed income programs

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Marika Brussel has been receiving $1,000 each month since May, no strings attached, from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The 52-year-old ballet teacher and choreographer is one of 190 artists living in San Francisco who are participating in an 18-month guaranteed income program run by YBCA and funded by the city of San Francisco and private donors. The extra income has been both a professional lifeline and a big morale boost during lean pandemic times.

“It makes it possible for me to create new work and pay the dancers and composers who I work with,” Brussel, who is Jewish, told J. in an interview. “Without it, this would’ve been a very non-artistic time for me.”

The San Francisco Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists, as it is called, is one of several guaranteed income programs that have been implemented in recent years in the Bay Area and across the country. The goals and efficacy of these programs, along with the misconceptions surrounding them, were the focus of a Nov. 14 virtual forum organized by the San Francisco Black & Jewish Unity Coalition titled “Imagining a World Without Poverty: The Promise of Guaranteed Income.”

“We know that $1,000 a month isn’t a living income in San Francisco,” Emma Guttman-Slater, a Chicago-based consultant who helped develop SF-GIPA, said during the Zoom event. “This is a recovery strategy [for artists]. They, along with a lot of other folks, were very hard hit by the pandemic. But we’re also looking at it as a long-term, federal-level policy.”

The positive impact of the SF-GIPA, which is specifically targeted to low-income artists who identify as people of color, LGBT, disabled or immigrants, is already being felt by the participants, Guttman-Slater said. “We already know that cash improves lives,” she said. “We’re also hearing things like, and this is directly from artists, ‘I feel seen for the first time in a long time. I can work on my project because I’m no longer crushed by stress. I can focus.’” She added that it is important for a community to support its artists, specifically, because they “drive social change.”

It’s racist narratives that equate poverty with individual choices.

Brussel, the choreographer, said she appreciates that the money is referred to as income, not as a gift. “The wording makes it even more valuable,” she said, noting that it acknowledges the reality that dance is her career and not a hobby.

According to Jim Pugh, co-director of the Oakland-based nonprofit Universal Income Project, there are more than 100 guaranteed income projects around the country, including 25 in California alone. “There’s definitely a lot of energy here around this, and a lot of the modern movement kind of sprang up here,” he said during the virtual forum. (Although the terms “guaranteed income” and “universal basic income” are sometimes used interchangeably, Pugh said “guaranteed income” is for low-income people, regardless of their employment status, while universal basic income theoretically is for everybody.)

In addition to SF-GIPA, other local programs include Community Works’s Restorative Reentry Pilot Program, which pays people re-entering society from prison and living in Alameda or Contra Costa counties $500 per month for a year, and the Abundant Birth Project, which gives $1,000 per month to pregnant Black and Pacific Islander women in San Francisco for the duration of their pregnancies and the first six months postpartum. One of the best-known programs in California is the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), which launched in 2019 and provided $500 per month for two years to 125 randomly selected Stockton residents with household income levels at or below the city’s median.

The first wave of guaranteed income programs was privately funded, Pugh said, but among the more recent ones are public-private partnerships, such as SF-GIPA, and those that are fully funded by the public, such as the Los Angeles Economic Assistance Pilot. Opposition to publicly funded programs tends to be rooted in false assumptions about their affordability and about the beneficiaries’ ability to manage the money, Pugh said. “The question is not whether we can afford it,” he said. “The question is where our priorities are, and whether we choose to make these changes to our society.”

As for the narrative that poor people will squander the money on vice purchases such as alcohol and cigarettes, Pugh said that the data prove otherwise. “Every time you have a program that provides direct cash to low-income people, they use it exactly on the things that they need,” he said. “They buy food, they buy diapers for their kids, they buy clothes, they fix their cars.”

Screenshot of “Imagining a World Without Poverty: The Promise of Guaranteed Income.”
Screenshot of “Imagining a World Without Poverty: The Promise of Guaranteed Income.”

Guttman-Slater was more blunt. “It’s racist narratives that equate poverty with individual choices,” she said. “The true narrative is that a long history of racist economic policy has made it so that you can work really hard every day of your life, and you still can’t provide for yourself or for your family.”

A former resident of Oakland, Guttman-Slater said in an interview with J. that her “coming into consciousness” about economic inequality occurred as a result of her involvement with Jewish social justice groups Bend the Arc and Avodah. She was a 2016 Jeremiah Fellow at Bend the Arc.

“My background is in financial justice advocacy and financial systems change, so I’m really interested in how we need to change our economic system in order to move it from one based on extraction and exploitation to one based on real exchange of value and redistribution,” she said.

At the close of the forum, Guttman-Slater encouraged attendees to “become messengers” for guaranteed income programs. “We don’t have to do things the way that they’ve always been done,” she said.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon of Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco, who opened the forum with a prayer, expressed her support for the programs in the Zoom chat.

“I can only imagine how much anxiety and mental stress would be lessened, and how much healthier people would feel and be overall, if they knew they had a cushion of reliable income,” she wrote.

Founded in 2016, the San Francisco Black & Jewish Unity Coalition holds regular meetings to discuss and organize around issues of concern to the city’s African American residents, including criminal justice and prison reform, economic development, health and civic engagement.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.