Sukhi Samra grew up with a mother who worked up to 80 hours per week to support three children and a husband with a disability. None of her three jobs paid her well enough to make ends meet in Fresno, California, in the late 2000s. So she juggled work as a housecleaner with shifts at a Subway restaurant and a gas station convenience store, and still struggled financially.
Samra said receiving just $500 in additional income a month would have reduced her mother’s workload and stress load, she said. Instead, the food worker developed hypertension, arthritis, depression, and anxiety before dying suddenly in June after 25 years of low-wage labor.
“In the richest country in the world, one job should be more than enough to make sure that you’re able to keep the lights on and feed your children, but that wasn’t the case for her,” said Samra, director of the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) project and Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. Both programs were founded in 2020 by former Stockton, California Mayor, Michael Tubbs, and they’re both on a mission to provide low-wage earners, a category that disproportionately includes food workers, with a guaranteed income.
The idea is rapidly gaining traction nationwide. While universal basic income (UBI) initiatives provide no-strings-attached cash payments to all community members whether or not they are economically disadvantaged, guaranteed income projects like SEED aim to reduce income inequality by specifically giving “free money” to financially fragile constituents.
“Guaranteed income is a targeted policy solution to address racial and gender disparities in income insecurity,” Samra said. “Also, guaranteed income comes in a little bit cheaper than universal basic income just by virtue of the fact that you’re not serving the same number of people.”
In recent years, several cities have begun offering a guaranteed income to small groups of economically disadvantaged residents, and a number of others—including Los Angeles—are considering doing so. In February 2019, the SEED project launched a two-year guaranteed income program in Stockton, a racially diverse city of 300,000 on the eastern edge of the Bay Area that has been working to rebound from bankruptcy since 2008. The program provided a $500 monthly allotment to 125 randomly chosen residents in neighborhoods where earnings fall at or below the city’s median household income.
Recently released data from the program’s first year indicates that receiving a guaranteed income allowed participants to pay down their debts, cover unexpected expenses, and improve their mental health. In addition, full-time employment among these residents rose by 12 percent, a finding that flies in the face of the notion that free money disincentivizes low-income people from working. The success of Stockton’s program inspired other California cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, and Compton, to follow suit. Nationwide, Richmond, Virginia; Saint Paul, Minnesota; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and the Massachusetts cities of Chelsea and Cambridge have all adopted guaranteed income programs.
While most of these initiatives focus on low-income families, San Francisco’s program stands out in that it will funnel $1,000 to 130 struggling artists for six months starting in May. This could pave the way for other municipalities to target economically specific groups of disadvantaged workers. The effort is being watched closely by food workers’ advocates, who say that monthly cash payments could offer those workers the financial stability to live in dignity.
Madeline Neighly, director of guaranteed income at the Economic Security Project, a funder and partner of SEED, pointed out that many foodservice workers don’t earn a living wage. The Raise the Wage Act of 2021, introduced to the U.S. Senate in January, would increase the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by June 2025, but has faced pushback from industry groups such as the National Restaurant Association. The proposal also suffered a blow when the Senate opted against including minimum wage legislation in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus plan.
“We’ve learned a lot over the past year about the ways we rely so heavily on foodservice workers—from the people who pick our food to the people who deliver it and prepare it to everybody in between,” Neighly said. “So, a demonstration that shows how guaranteed income can level some of the economic shocks for those individuals seems like a great idea.”
Fighting to earn a living wage, relying on tips to survive, facing sexual harassment, and often getting paid under the table because of their immigration status, food workers are among the nation’s most exploited group of workers, advocates say. A guaranteed income could be just what many need to transition out of poverty and work in settings where they’re treated with respect.
The Case for a Guaranteed Food Worker Income
The COVID-19 pandemic only worsened economic conditions for restaurant workers, with nearly 400,000 restaurant jobs lost in December alone. Overall, the coronavirus resulted in the restaurant industry losing almost 2.5 million jobs. Tipped workers were acutely impacted, according to Sekou Siby, president and CEO of Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United. “It is not a wage,” he said of tips. “It’s a gratuity.”
Because restaurant staff typically worked fewer hours last year, their tips went down proportionally. That is one reason why ROC has been advocating for restaurant workers to earn a federal living wage of at least $15, but Siby said that a guaranteed income could also help. “We should provide targeted outreach toward families still working full-time but not making enough to [get by].”