Nearly one in four people in Fresno live below the poverty line. Credit: Melissa Montalvo / Fresno Bee

What's at stake?

Nearly a quarter of Fresno residents live below the poverty line. Basic incomes - or cash transfers - are increasingly viewed by economists as a essential strategy to eliminate poverty.

A pilot program to combat California poverty won’t include Fresno, a major setback for local organizers who said the project could help in a city where nearly one in four people struggle to make ends meet.

On Monday, the California Department of Social Services announced $25 million in funding for a handful of guaranteed basic income pilot programs throughout the state — but a proposed project in Fresno was not among the selected awards.

“We are disappointed with the State’s decision not to fund our proposal for a Guaranteed Basic Income program,” said Kevin Williams, director of equity and impact at Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission in an email statement to The Bee/Fresnoland.

“Our Fresno proposal for $5 (million) out of the State’s $35 (million) available for pilot programs represents a tiny fraction of the State’s unprecedented budget surplus,” he said in a statement.

Guaranteed basic income programs have cropped up throughout California and beyond in recent years. The idea behind the anti-poverty program is to give monthly, unconditional cash payments to a target population.

In May 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state of California would allocate $35 million to fund guaranteed basic income pilot projects throughout the state. Priority was given to programs that targeted pregnant people and foster youth.

A local coalition led by the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, United Way Fresno and Madera Counties, and The Center for Community Voices at Fresno State, applied for nearly $5 million to fund an estimated 268 urban and rural individuals for an 18-month program. The program would have distributed $1,000 monthly payments to participants.

Coalition members said the support would have been a big help for Fresno families: 23.5% of Fresno city residents experience poverty, according to U.S. Census data.

In addition, Fresno has experienced some of the highest rent increases in the nation in recent years. A recent study found that nearly 60% of Fresno renters are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income in rent.

“Communities like Fresno and the Central Valley are often overlooked for proven programs such as this one,” said Williams.

Williams said the team remains ”hopeful” that Fresno will be considered for the remaining California Guaranteed Income Pilot Program funding.

But a spokesperson for the CDSS told The Bee that the remaining $10 million —or approximately 29% — of the allocated $35 million would be spent on pilot evaluation, technical assistance to grantees, and state operating costs.

Williams said the team remains “unshaken” in their commitment to continuing the work to eradicate poverty and they seek philanthropic supporters to fund the local guaranteed basic income effort.

“Our communities are often labeled as ‘underrepresented,’ ‘disenfranchised,’ and ‘disadvantaged,’ but there has been a failure to answer the question of who is responsible for representing them and providing resources and support to build pathways out of poverty as citizens of this great State,” he said.

He added that the team is “ecstatic” for the other communities that are receiving the state funding. “As we know,” said Williams, “the struggles people in poverty face are widespread and not limited to the Central Valley.”

California Guaranteed Income Pilot Awards

In total, CDSS announced seven awards to the following entities:

  • Expecting Justice (Heluna Health DBA Public Health Foundation Enterprises, Inc.) in the amount of $5,000,000
  • Inland Southern California United Way in the amount of $5,000,000 iFoster, Inc. in the amount of $4,763,0104
  • Los Angeles Section National Council of Jewish Women, Inc. in the amount of $3,681,949
  • San Francisco Human Services Agency in the amount of $3,300,000 McKinleyville Community Collaborative in the amount of $2,354,841
  • Ventura County Human Services Agency in the amount of $1,500,000

“These pilots will serve as an important opportunity to assess the impact of an economic intervention during key life transitions, such as the birth of a child or entry into independence after extended foster care,” said CDSS Director Kim Johnson.

In total, the seven state-funded pilot programs will serve around 1,975 individuals with monthly payments ranging from $600-$1,200 per month, for programs that run between 12-18 months.

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.