While economic inequality may seem like an ever-mounting obstacle, more and more communities are experimenting with a long-tested, but often dismissed, idea to combat poverty.
Emmy-winning filmmaker Marc Levin and executive producer Michael Tubbs break down the deep history and complicated reality of guaranteed basic income in the documentary “It’s Basic,” which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year.
The concept, also called universal basic income, is based on the premise that working people understand their own needs better than government officials or bureaucracies, and low-income earners should receive a simple monthly check that comes without stipulations or strings.
The film follows participants in programs across five different cities, offering a nuanced look at how much an extra $500 to $1,000 per month can impact working people and families. It also examines why the idea still falls short in some areas.
“Put a little gas in my tank and I’ll show you how far I can go,” Lucille, a participant from St. Paul, Minnesota, told filmmakers.
Advocates maintain that guaranteed income is an essential lifeline for low-income earners, especially as studies show that 60% of Americans across income brackets are living paycheck to paycheck.
Critics worry the funds only provide a temporary cushion for people. Others offer more patronizing excuses, suggesting low-income earners don’t know how to manage their money and that the checks incentivize people to stay out of the workforce.
But the subjects of “It’s Basic” reveal very different situations. Many, if not most, of the subjects are employed and use the funds to cover the difference between their wages and the rising cost of housing and living expenses. Others are full-time caretakers, stretching every last penny they have to keep their families safe and healthy.
Levin said breaking down these stereotypes was a key piece of the project.
“People have been inculcated with these myths about poverty and the undeserving poor,” he told HuffPost. “Part of the goal of the film is to convince people that the investment is worth it for everyone, for the good of the whole.”
Tubbs saw the impact of a guaranteed income firsthand while mayor of Stockton, California, where he piloted the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, or SEED, program in February 2019. For two years, 125 randomly selected low-income residents were given $500 a month without restrictions or work requirements.
Afterward, researchers saw participants’ full-time employment rates rise from 28% to 40%. They also found that 99% of funds were used on basic needs like food, clothes, utilities and auto care, and not vices like alcohol and tobacco, as opponents suggested.
In addition to that economic lift, Tubbs noticed how the programs gave participants a far more profound type of boost.
“They’ve been told that they’re failures their whole life,” he told HuffPost. “So when someone says, ‘Here’s $500,’ to be told, ‘You don’t have to prove anything to us. You don’t have to check in with us. We trust you’ ― it’s powerful and unlocks so much potential.”
Despite SEED’s successes, Tubbs lost his bid for reelection in 2020 amid public scrutiny of the program.
Undeterred, he leaned into his organization Mayors for Guaranteed Basic Income, a network of civic leaders he founded before being voted out of office. Since then, the organization has expanded to include 130 mayors and 40 county officials across the country.
Even as the movement gains steam, “It’s Basic” shows how guaranteed income is far from a permanent solution, following what happens to families when the support ends.
To Levin, those stories revealed how much policy and public opinion must shift to make a sincere and lasting impact on people’s lives.
“We come from a very individualistic, materialistic, consumer-driven world and that paradigm shift is going to take a while,” he explained. “That’s something we’re all wrestling with.”
“It’s Basic” is currently on a national tour and will have its West Coast premiere at the DTLA Film Festival on Nov. 2.