LA took a big leap on universal basic income. For most, it was a big help

By Giuliana Mayo

The City of Los Angeles gave $1,000 per month to 3,200 low-income families over the last year as part of a universal basic income (UBI) pilot program called BIG: LEAP. Photo by Shutterstock.

Here’s the deal: $1,000 a month, free, no strings attached. That’s what the City of Los Angeles has provided to 3,200 low-income families over the last year as part of a universal basic income (UBI) pilot program called BIG: LEAP. The idea is to see how people’s lives might be changed by the extra income. 

Qualified recipients were chosen in a lottery, and journalist Sasha Abramsky has followed four of the chosen families for The Nation

“BIG: LEAP has no strings attached. It works on the assumption that if you give people money, they will spend it wisely. And people who have needs will spend it to meet those needs. So if they have hungry kids, they'll feed their kids. If they can't afford school supplies, well, now they can afford school supplies,” he notes. “Things that many people take for granted but that people at the lower end of the economic ladder really struggle with, suddenly with BIG: LEAP, those things became possible. And it changed people's lives.” 

Vaughn Luis agrees. He and his wife Kameko Charles were among those chosen to participate in the program, and it had immediate results in their home. “I really and truly need glasses. For a long time, I couldn't afford it. And with the BIG: LEAP program, it was affordable for me to get glasses,” he shares.

The extra money also enabled Luis and Charles to get a reliable car and many other things. “It helped us with school supplies and helped us with hygiene products. Being a mother of five, it helped in a big way,” Charles says.

Abramsky recognizes the criticism of UBI’s no-strings-attached approach, but after following these four families, he found it meritless, noting that people with low incomes want the same things people in more stable financial situations want. “They want to help their children, they want a stable place to live, they want their car to run, they want just basic supplies, they want to be able to buy food when they need food, that sort of thing,” he explains.

Abramsky says the participants he followed all used their extra money in different ways. Charles and Luis took their kids to beaches and museums to get them out of the house, others used the money for emergencies, like car repairs or health issues. 

With the year of extra money almost up, he observes, “BIG: LEAP isn't a panacea. It's not that everybody who goes in after one year, suddenly they're financially on their feet. Some people will be, but some of the others, at the very least it gives them breathing space.”

Charles says handling life without an extra $1,000 a month is going to take a lot of prayer. “We did manage … to save enough to afford the car payments that we have right now. But we’re figuring it out day by day.”