Were the focus of this column national politics, I would write it on the extraordinary drubbing that Democrats took in Tuesday’s election. I’d write about the appalling, hubristic mediocrity of Terry McAuliffe’s candidacy for the Virginia governorship, and the needless hostages to fortune he gave up with his poorly thought-out comments on parental involvement in schooling. I’d lambast the congressional Democrats for frittering away vital months in internal party debates on the infrastructure legislation and Build Back Better Act that have, increasingly, looked like a circular firing squad, and have surely contributed to a tanking of poll ratings for both the party and the president.
I certainly wouldn’t miss the opportunity to berate Senators Manchin and Sinema for so eviscerating the social infrastructure and climate change investments, and for having such a truly unpleasant set of political priorities that what ought to have been transformative—and very popular—legislation now increasingly looks simply ordinary, unlikely to help the Democrats draw support from important sectors of the electorate. But, to be fair, and to spread the blame around, I’d also berate progressives for not facilitating passage of the infrastructure bill when it could actually have politically benefited the party on November 2. Everyone was so busy posturing that they forgot to actually govern; they forgot the importance of delivering bread-and-butter achievements to voters before Election Day. That’s a mistake that the power-savvy McConnell would not have made, were the shoe on the other foot.
Mostly, however, I’d berate the Biden administration for not finding ways, nearly a year into the presidency, to solve supply chain issues, for not acknowledging the risk of inflation taking root until it already had taken root and begun to corrode Americans’ spending power, for not managing the Afghan withdrawal (which needed to be done, but ought to have been conducted in a less viscerally and visually chaotic way), and for not finding some way to deal with escalating basic quality of life and security issues such as a rising violent crime rate and a cascading homelessness crisis.
Taken as a whole, I’d lay into the Democratic Party for its stunning—yet unfortunately all-too-predictable—political malpractice. For not finding a way to drive a stake through the heart of the Trumpified Republican Party when they had every opportunity over the past ten months, for not giving independents a compelling storyline about their governing abilities that would have nailed down that crucial demographic’s 2020 shift away from an increasingly conspiracist and antidemocratic GOP, and for performing so dismally in marquee races in Virginia and in New Jersey that we will all now spend the next three years shuddering at the suddenly not-so-far-fetched notion that Trump could somehow rise like a bloated, senescent phoenix and occupy the White House again come January 2025. Should that happen, it’s a fair bet that in the years following, the Supreme Court could end up even more insanely conservative than it already is, and the globe could end up even more at risk of devastating climate change than is already the case.
But, of course, as The Nation’s West Coast columnist, I really shouldn’t do any of that. So instead I want to talk about the recently unveiled universal basic income experiment in Los Angles, which will give 2,000 families $1,000 a month for a year. It’s a pet project of outgoing Mayor Eric Garcetti, and one that he has been touting since he unveiled the city’s budget for the upcoming year this past April. And while it’s not a new concept—roughly 50 other US cities have such pilot programs underway—it is among the very biggest such projects in the country.
A similar project, involving 5,000 families, but a smaller $500 per month benefit, is also being started in Chicago, kicking off this coming January. It has, however, been embroiled in controversy, with critics of Mayor Lori Lightfoot arguing that she stalled on implementing the pilot program and thus delayed getting benefits to needy residents.
These basic income programs represent a true sea change, a move away from the paternalism of welfare systems that give one the money but then also impose conditions on how it can be spent. The money won’t be controlled by anyone other than the grantees, who will have complete autonomy as to how they spend their additional income.
Los Angeles’s program is named the Big;Leap (Basic Guaranteed Income: Los Angeles Economic Assistance Pilot), and is open to any residents who are living below the poverty line. The enrollment period lasts until this Sunday, and is on a strictly first-come-basis.
How will it play out? If past results of such programs are any indicator, it will allow participants to pay off debt, to train for and to keep jobs, to access medical and mental health care, and to buy decent food for their families while also being able to pay utility bills. As importantly, it will boost the financial well-being of family members and friends who, prior to the basic income program, had to help their on-the-margins friends and relatives, but who now can assume those relatives will be covered by the basic income plan provisions.
The basic income movement is on the march. With the new programs in Los Angeles and in Chicago, it has at long last hit the big time. Of course, it won’t substitute for what ought to be no-brainer social policy reforms such as mandated paid family and sick leave, or universal pre-K child care, or expanded federal government payments to families with children, or including vision, dental, and hearing coverage in Medicare. But with the Democrats in Congress parsing every single reform policy, and with Manchin still holding large parts of the legislation hostage to his peculiar political priorities, for now, at least, what is unfolding in LA and Chicago could end becoming up the most enlightening anti-poverty program of the year.