Lauded for its direct impact, a temporary cash assistance program has helped some of Mountain View’s most vulnerable residents meet their household needs, without stipulating how the money should be used.
The $2 million pilot program, known as Elevate MV, launched about a year ago and is providing data for a national study that is investigating how a guaranteed basic income can help alleviate poverty. Early results indicate that the city’s program, which gives $500 a month to 166 extremely low-income participants, is making a tangible difference.
Whether it’s for food, rent, education or even a vacation, individuals can use the money in any way that they see fit, said Mayor Pat Showalter, who provided an overview of the program at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts on Jan. 11.
Attended by about 70 people, the community event screened a documentary, “It’s Basic,” followed by a roundtable discussion of some of the challenges and successes of the Elevate MV program.
The idea of a guaranteed basic income is not new, but its implementation in the U.S. is fairly recent, with some of the first pilot programs launching in 2019. Since then, more than 48 cities and several counties have tried out the idea, offering regular and unconditional financial assistance to low-income residents.
In 2022 the Mountain View City Council voted 6-1 to launch a basic income pilot later known as Elevate MV. To qualify for the program, applicants had to earn below 30% of the area median income, live in Mountain View and be pregnant or a caregiver to a child under the age of 18 years.
To help implement the two-year pilot program, the city contracted with its main service provider, the nonprofit Community Services Agency (CSA).
A year in, findings from the program show that retail sales and services account for the largest share of spending, at 43%, with food and groceries coming in closely behind at 38% and transport related expenses at about 8%, according to the city’s data dashboard.
Mohamed Kaci, a French school teacher and father of a 9-year-old son, said the extra income provided his household with the opportunity to participate in activities that they otherwise could not afford. “It’s helping us a lot,” he said.
Miriam Hernandez, a mother of four children, also said the income was a big help. After her husband lost his job, they used the money to pay for their rent and other household expenses.
CSA Executive Director Tom Myers shared similar stories, describing the situation of Maria, a mother who used the money to cover a $500 medical co-payment for her daughter. Another recipient, Catherine, used the guaranteed income to buy formula and diapers for her newborn baby.
But programs like Elevate MV provide more than just financial assistance; it’s a new way to view public assistance, Myers said.
“I personally believe that basic income has the potential to not only rewrite the way that government benefits are done in this country, it has the potential to completely rewrite the way the nonprofit sector deals with providing services in this country,” he said.
However, not everyone is on board with the idea of “no strings attached” payments, according to Myers. Some community members have expressed concerns that a guaranteed income makes it difficult to enforce accountability, he said.
But in many ways that’s the point, which the documentary emphasized. Individuals can make their own decisions about how the money is spent. It offers a sense of autonomy and dignity that often is lacking in social welfare programs, according to the film.
It also helps establish a relationship of trust with local municipalities and the wider community.
“Programs like this make me feel more united with other citizens. I feel like I belong more in my community because of the support,” Hernandez said through a Spanish interpreter.