California officials representing some of the wealthiest cities in the world traveled to one of the poorest villages in Africa this week to study universal basic income, a poverty solution they hope to expand in the Golden State.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell and state Assemblymember Matt Haney from San Francisco, both Democrats, were in Kisumu County, Kenya, on Wednesday, where residents have received $25 a month for the past five years as part of the world’s largest guaranteed income project.
The trip was hosted by GiveDirectly, a nonprofit that partners with the charitable arms of companies including Google and the NBA to provide direct cash to people living in poverty.
Basic income programs provide cash to people in need with no strings attached. Advocates of universal income are pushing to broaden the practice, pointing to early research that shows it is more effective in alleviating poverty than some existing safety net programs subject to government-mandated rules and bureaucratic delays in services.
Haney and Mitchell were interviewed by telephone by The Times during a two-hour, off-road drive in rural Kenya to a universal income village. The irony of the international trip was not lost on the California officials, who represent one of the largest economies in the world.
But both, who have spearheaded local basic income efforts in California, spoke of similarities of the experiences of poverty despite geography.
“People using these programs back home are using them to make investments in education or work certification or to pay off debt. Here, that same sentiment means they can buy three goats or build a home,” Haney said Wednesday. “But it’s actually very similar in many ways and affirms our belief in this model — that when you give people cash and choice, they uplift themselves and their families and their communities.”
For the record:
9:25 a.m. Aug. 10, 2023An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell paid for her chief of staff to travel to Kenya with money from her supervisor’s office account. Mitchell used funds from her campaign account.
Haney said he paid for his flight with campaign funds, and Mitchell said her flight was paid for by Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. Mitchell said she used campaign funds to pay the travel costs of her chief of staff. GiveDirectly paid for their lodging.
While California is home to vast wealth, more than a quarter of Californians are living in or near poverty. Haney and Mitchell both represent cities with among the most millionaires and billionaires and at the same time homelessness and housing crises reflective of California’s yawning wealth gaps.
“What has become crystal clear to me on this trip is that poverty is poverty, regardless of continent,” Mitchell said.
The logistics of running any program in California would likely be vastly different than the Kenyan program based on many economic and cultural factors, but the officials said they were coming away with ideas. They pointed to a mobile money banking system that villagers use, so that cash deposits under the program are instantly accessible.
Californians struggle to gain timely access to their benefits, Mitchell said, and eligibility for one program could cut off your service to another because of income rules.
“Cash performs better than some of the other critical services that we in government prioritize. We create this cliff effect: if people do what we ask them to do like go to school or get the raise, then we drop them from the social safety net,” said Mitchell, a former state lawmaker. “My dream is for us to rethink the way we administer these programs and create a culture shift and cut some of the red tape.”
Last year, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom launched the nation’s first state-funded guaranteed income program, offering grants to cities interested in piloting the direct cash services.
A program in Los Angeles County is directing $1,000 a month to 1,000 residents living in eligible neighborhoods for 36 months. Another county program will give $1,000 per month for two years to 200 young adults who were in foster care.
Existing programs in California are limited and early in the process but have been met with support from the Democratic-majority Legislature. A caucus committed to ending poverty in California was announced in the state Legislature last month, with Michael Tubbs, an adviser to Newsom, involved in policy discussions.
Tubbs was also on the Kenya trip, and served as mayor of Stockton, where he led a guaranteed income program that has been heralded nationally. He is the founder of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and an organization called End Poverty in California and has not shied away from criticizing his fellow Democrats for not doing more for poverty relief.
“Poverty is not a reflection of intellect or aptitude or potential, it’s really a failure on a policy and systems level,” Tubbs said from Kenya on Wednesday. “Coming to another continent to get perspective was important because it really elevates the issue to a global human rights one and also reminds us that we’re not alone and we don’t have to have all the answers to try.”