Universal Basic Income Hits the Bay Area—If You’re Black

Civil rights lawyers cry foul over the Golden State’s cash payments based on race

(Getty Images)
December 13, 2022

At least three guaranteed income initiatives in the San Francisco Bay Area openly discriminate against white residents, limiting or entirely preventing their participation in programs that dole out no-strings-attached cash.

The programs—all of which are publicly funded—violate both the United States and the California state constitution, lawyers say, as well as civil rights laws that ban race discrimination in contracting and by the recipients of government funds.

The initiatives include the Black Economic Equity Movement, which provides $500 a month exclusively to "Black young adults," the Abundant Birth Project, which provides $1,000 a month to "Black and Pacific Islander mothers," and the Guaranteed Income for Transgender People program, which will dole out $1,200 a month and "prioritize enrollment" of transgender "Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC)."  They are financed by the National Institutes of Health, the California Department of Social Services, and the city of San Francisco, respectively.

These programs offer a preview of what could soon be the norm in the Golden State. In July 2021, California lawmakers set aside $35 million dollars in grant funding for guaranteed income pilots across the state. Though the law did not include any racial or ethnic qualifiers, in keeping with the California constitution, the state’s social services department said that it would only give out the grants to pilots that "center equity." Grant applicants were encouraged to "embed an equity-focused approach throughout each dimension" of their programs, including their "eligibility."

"It’s astonishing to me how brazen the State of California and its various Bay Areas local governments have become in violating the many laws and constitutional provisions prohibiting race discrimination," said Gail Heriot, a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights and a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law.

All three initiatives appear to violate the 14th Amendment, which bans states from discriminating based on race, said Dan Morenoff, the executive director of the American Civil Rights Project, as well as the California constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which ban racial discrimination in contracting. In addition, the Black Economic Equity Movement appears to violate Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans racial discrimination by the recipients of federal funds. The National Institutes of Health, whose "health equity" initiative funded the program, did not respond to a request for comment.

The blueprint for these programs comes from private philanthropic ventures, which have experimented with supplemental income schemes in Jackson, Miss., and Atlanta that are only available to black women.

Though both the Mississippi program, underwritten by the W.K. Kellogg foundation, and the Atlanta program, funded by the Georgia Resilience and Opportunity Fund, discriminate based on race, they probably don’t violate any laws, said David Bernstein, a professor of constitutional law at George Mason Law School.

But their California counterparts are another ball game.

"The publicly funded programs are clearly unconstitutional," Bernstein said. "It’s not a close call."

In an implicit admission of the legal stakes, every agency involved in the Abundant Birth Project denied using the racial criteria listed on the program’s website. The San Francisco Department of Public Health, which oversees the program, told the Washington Free Beacon that it is "open to all San Franciscans," albeit "with focused efforts" to reach black and Pacific Islander "pregnant and parenting people." Jason Montiel, a spokesman for the California Department of Social Services, which in November wrote a $5 million grant to the Abundant Birth Project so it could expand to other parts of the state, said the expansion "will not use race as a basis for eligibility."

That might come as news to Grant Colfax, the director of the San Francisco health department: In a December 6 press release trumpeting the grant, he said it would "help hundreds more Black birthing parents in California." San Francisco mayor London Breed likewise implied that the expansion was racially targeted, calling the Abundant Birth Project "a model to address racial birth disparities."

The Black Economic Equity Movement and the Guaranteed Income for Transgender People program did not respond to requests for comment.

The legal status of a fourth program, Oakland Resilient Families, is less clear. The initiative provides $500 a month to "BIPOC families" living in Oakland, according to a March 2021 press release from the city’s website, which describes it as a "partnership" with "government leaders." In a June 2021 press release, however, the city said the initiative is "not a city-run program and is 100 percent funded through philanthropic donations," adding that "any" low-income family "is welcome to apply."

Oakland Resilient Families also lists Justin Berton, a spokesman for Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf (D.), as a point of contact for the allegedly private program. Berton did not respond to a request for comment.