STORY BY CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY
The City of Mountain View is set to pilot a universal basic income program using $1 million of excess federal COVID-19 relief funds as part of a program proposed by Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga at the council’s April 27 meeting.
“We’ve been fortunate we haven’t faced the deficit that a lot of other cities have,” Abe-Koga said in an interview. “I thought this would be an opportunity to try and be innovative, and try something different.”
Through the American Rescue Plan — a $1.9 trillion stimulus act signed by President Biden in March — Mountain View is receiving $15 million over the next two years which leaves the city with $3 million in surplus with current budgetary projections.
City staff previously asked the council to come up with suggestions for using these funds, Abe-Koga said, as the federal aid must be used by 2024.
Despite no plans being concrete, Abe-Koga said that a rough model of the program could be providing $500 per month to a set number of low-income individuals, likely chosen through a lottery system, for one to two years starting as early as this fall. The scale and details of the program are expected to develop in the next two months.
“I’ve always felt that the best way to help folks is to help them help themselves,” Abe-Koga said. “One of the concepts of UBI is to empower the individual to make choices to help them better their lives, so this idea of direct assistance was very appealing to me.”
The city council’s third quarter budget, which includes the UBI funding, will not be approved until its June 8 meeting; in the meantime, Abe-Koga said the council directed city staff to research the best approach to implement the program.
As the UBI discussion diverged from the April 27 meeting’s agenda and pre-distributed budget packet, the proposal has gone largely unnoticed so far, but Abe-Koga said the response from those who are aware of it –– including her fellow councilmembers –– has been only positive.
“Individuals who are aware of it, folks have been very positive,” Abe-Koga. “I haven’t actually heard any negative yet about it. I’m sure there will be.”
Last year, as mayor, Abe-Koga approved Mountain View’s COVID-19 rent relief program that provided direct financial assistance to low-income residents, but the money had a prescribed purpose rather than allowing recipients to use their discretion as UBI would; she said this gives her hope of community support for the UBI pilot as well.
A handful of nearby cities have implemented similar pilot programs including Oakland, Stockton, San Francisco and South San Francisco –– with all except the last being considerably larger than Mountain View. Abe-Koga said the idea of piloting a UBI program didn’t seem feasible until she heard about the recent program in South San Francisco.
And while figures as early as Martin Luther King Jr. have argued for guaranteed income as a way to uplift low-income individuals, Abe Koga said that she first seriously considered UBI while following Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign.
For technical assistance and help tracking the data of the pilot program to measure its success, the city has reached out to the national movement called Mayors for Guaranteed Income and Silicon Valley Community Foundation, respectively, anticipating that their prior experience will be of great help in the success of the program.
Noting the rarity of governments embracing novelty and saying that they tend to “wait for the stars to align,” Abe-Koga said she hopes there will be community interest and support to keep UBI programs going.
“In terms of [UBI] becoming permanent, yeah, hopefully,” Abe Koga said. “We need to see the results, but hopefully if there [are] positive results –– it sounds like and it looks like from these other cities that have done pilots that there are –– then we could be part of advocating for something nationwide.”