The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Since the inception of the War on Drugs and “tough on crime” policies in the 1980s, the U.S. prison population grew from 300,000 to over 2 million. Today, a staggering 7 million Americans are currently behind bars or under the supervision of probation or parole; the vast majority of these individuals are people of color.
Racial disparities permeate every stage of juvenile and adult criminal legal systems. Black youth are four times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, making up the overwhelming majority of youth criminalized and swept into the system. In Alameda County, CA, 66% of youth booked into Juvenile Hall are Black and 28% Latinx compared to just 4% white. These disparities persist into adulthood where Black adults are 13% of the general population, but make up over 40% of the prison population. There is no evidence that people of color offend more often than whites despite these historical and growing racial disparities in arrests and incarceration.
White supremacy drives mass incarceration and racial wealth disparities. From chattel slavery to Jim Crow to the modern-day criminal legal system, there are countless examples of how whiteness upholds a racial caste system in America. Mass incarceration not only locks people behind physical bars but also virtual walls that restrict freedom and mobility. Once released, individuals face legalized discrimination in housing and employment and permanent social exclusion. Locked out of the labor market and having to adhere to a web of laws and rules during reentry contributes to a vicious cycle of rearrest that inhibits social mobility and maintains the caste system.
Guaranteed Income as a Solution
Unconditional cash assistance offers people dignity and self-determination: an income floor to achieve stability and the autonomy to define and build their life on their terms. Guaranteed income for returning citizens challenges the stigma of incarceration and a legacy of punitive and paternalistic approaches that seek to define and dictate the lives of Black and Brown people returning home. This idea that ‘we’ know what is best for ‘them’ is rooted in white supremacy. Lastly, it departs from the longstanding tradition of investing in systems that perpetuate harm and instead directs those funds to people and communities that have experienced a history of discrimination and disinvestment.
Research shows that guaranteed income (GI) programs are highly effective. The Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) and other programs for diverse ages, genders, and racial/ethnic groups shows that when provided unrestricted payments, recipients secure full-time employment, achieve financial stability, and experience improved mental health and overall wellness. The New Leaf Project, a GI program for individuals experiencing homelessness, found that cash recipients moved into stable housing faster and spent fewer days homeless. GI has also been found to alleviate financial scarcity creating new opportunities for self-determination, choice, goal-setting, and risk-taking. Recipients typically spend their cash on necessities such as housing/rent, food, transportation, education, and health.
In a brief titled Exploring Guaranteed Income Through a Racial and Gender Justice Lens, Jhumpa Bhattacharya proposes that GI policies should center gender and racial economic justice by focusing on:
- Dismantling narratives that dehumanize Black and Brown people and question their deservedness to receive public assistance;
- Eliminating state-sponsored wealth extraction through our criminal legal system; and
- Establish a truth and reconciliation process in the US.
Community Works has received seed funding to pilot the nation's first guaranteed income program for individuals reentering the community post-incarceration. The project is funded by the Remy Fund for Racial and Environmental Justice and COVID-19: A Just East Bay Response Fund at the East Bay Community Foundation.
Community Works’ recognizes the legacy of white supremacy and state-sponsored wealth extraction through the criminal legal system and sees GI as an acknowledgment of the generational trauma from mass incarceration and the disproportionate number of Black and Brown people affected by it, as well as a strategy to combat poverty and racial wealth inequities. Income is fundamental to building wealth, but it will not close racial wealth gaps. As such, CW is hopeful this project provides a starting point for a conversation about a truth and reconciliation process in this country and how we can create the conditions for true wealth equity, prosperity, and liberation.
The program will provide individuals with an income of $500 per month for at least 12 months. The money is unconditional: there are no work requirements and no restrictions on how the money can be spent. The target population will consist primarily of Black and Brown adults who are returning home from prison or jail and reside in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Each participant will have access to a peer advocate who is formerly incarcerated and has deep on-the-ground knowledge of the community and local resources. The advocate can link participants to services based on their needs and a financial coach for support with money management. The advocate can also connect participants interested in entrepreneurship to local business incubators and networking events.
Our long-term goal is to explore what level of cash assistance creates time, peace of mind, and freedom for recipients to explore their interests, take risks, and pursue opportunities that lead to fulfillment and wealth building.
From Pilot to Policy
Community Works is engaged in local, state, and national policy efforts to advance GI. As conversations about universal basic income move from pilot to policy, it is critical that we learn from recipients closest to the issues and provide opportunities and support for them to lead these initiatives. A key aspect of the Restorative Reentry Fund is providing leadership and advocacy opportunities for former recipients who express interest in this work.
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