As efforts to provide a guaranteed income grow around California, a lawmaker who has pushed for such state-funded pilot programs has set his sights on another population he believes stands to benefit — low-income high school students on the brink of adulthood.
State Sen. Dave Cortese, a Democrat from Campbell, is sponsoring a bill to have the state give unconditional checks to about 15,000 high school students who have experienced homelessness, beginning upon graduation until they enroll in a university or vocational school in the fall or enter the labor market.
About 183,000 California K-12 students were homeless at some point during the 2020-21 school year, according to the California Department of Education.
The proposed legislation does not specify how high school students would request the payments or how much they would be. Cortese said he hopes the pilot program will offer monthly checks of $1,000 for four or five months for the Class of 2023, which could cost the state about $85 million a year.
The bill passed the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday with little opposition and is heading to the Senate Social Services Committee.
The bill grew out of an original idea to pilot a basic income program on select California State University campuses, where almost 11% of students said they had been homeless in 2018.
Cortese said he instead offered it to high school seniors to avoid interfering with student financial aid calculations; the bill could help students living in poverty rent an apartment or pay for food while studying if they enroll, but there is no requirement to do so.
Christina Torrez, a student at Bakersfield College and a former foster child who experienced homelessness in high school, told lawmakers on Wednesday that a basic income program would allow students to focus on their schooling.
“Honestly, school wasn’t important to me back then, because I had to know where I was going to eat, where I was going to sleep,” Torrez said. “What it does is allow a young person who is homeless to get rid of quite a burden.”
This is the latest guaranteed income proposal for California, which has seen several local governments start pilots after a high-profile experiment in Stockton from 2019-2021 giving 125 families $1,000 a month.
The aim is to reduce poverty and give recipients more flexibility on how to spend the money than is offered by traditional social services. Critics have raised concerns that the checks will discourage work.
Early results from the Stockton study found that full-time employment increased by 12% over the full year, and participants reported less financial instability and better health outcomes. Michael Tubbs, former Mayor of Stockton is now an adviser to Governor Gavin Newsom.
Many local efforts are privately funded, but some cities are using federal COVID-19 relief funds.
Last year, lawmakers invested $35 million in the state budget to create the the first state-funded national program. the The California Department of Social Services is preparing to allocate the funds to cities and counties to send checks to residents, giving priority to former young adoptees or pregnant women. It has not yet started accepting applications.
Cortese said he is looking for ways to gradually expand the program to other groups who could use a “soft landing” on the road to financial independence, such as high school students.
“My vision is that you start installing guaranteed income at the right time in a person’s life,” to save them from having to roam through shelters, he said.
“It feels a lot more like a movement,” Cortese said of basic income efforts across the state. “I just need to come back every legislative session and try to put another brick in the wall.”
This article is part of the California Division project, a collaboration between newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.