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interviews

The Compton Pledge

by Nika Soon-Shiong
November 18, 2020

This interview with Nika Soon-Shiong, Co-director of the Compton Pledge, was conducted and condensed by franknews

Nika | My name is Nika Soon-Shiong. I'm the Executive Director of The Fund for Guaranteed Income, as well as Co-director of the Compton Pledge.

frank | And what are both of those things?

The Fund for Guaranteed Income is an organization that I have been working towards for the past five years. My initial plan was to launch it after I finished my PhD on cash transfer implementation systems, but it really feels like now is an unprecedented time for more radical political visions and policies to take root. 

The Compton Pledge is the fastest-launched and most robust city-led guaranteed income initiative in the United States. It is implemented by the Compton Community Development Corporation and The Fund for Guaranteed Income, in partnership with the Jain Family Institute. A Community Advisory Board is guiding the design and implementation

In what ways is the city of Compton involved?

Mayor Brown is a founding member of the Mayors for Guaranteed Income led by Stockton’s Mayor Tubbs. Mayor Brown’s leadership and commitment to healing justice is incredibly important to the Compton Pledge.

Aja Brown (Los Angeles News Group)

Our goal is to make the case for new government policies at a municipal, state, and federal level, so the city's involvement is crucial. The Pledge itself, however, is not financed by the city. It is funded philanthropically.  

How do you decide who is qualified to be a recipient? How many people are you looking to include and what are you budgeting per person?

We are using a combination of public government and community-based organizations data to select 800  low-income residents to receive the cash transfers. The exact amount received by each participant will vary based on household size. Each participant will receive at least several hundred dollars, and parents with children will receive greater amounts. The frequency of distribution will also vary, but participants will be informed at the outset about the timing of their expected payments so that they can plan accordingly.

And how long does this go on for?

It's a two-year program.

800 people is a large number for a pilot program, but obviously a fraction of the city of Compton itself. How are you choosing who gets to participate?

We have an independent research team that is selecting the participants in order to have an inclusive subset of the city of Compton. So, for example, if there are x percent of formerly incarcerated people in Compton, then there would also be x percentage of the 800 that are formerly incarcerated. The reason for choosing 800 people as the sample number has to do with statistical power. We want to ensure that this is really representative of what a future city policy could and should look like.

Why Compton?

It is a city that is 30% black, and 68% Latinx. In many ways, it's the cultural capital of the world. At the same time, white flight, intentional divestment, and the looming threat of gentrification pose acute financial challenges. Unemployment rates have risen to 22% this year. There is an increasing number of Compton families relying on food pantries regularly for food. More than 23% of its 95,000 residents live below the federal poverty line. Compton is a city where racial and economic injustices intersect.

Other parts of the country or world face these systemic issues, but a motivating factor for The Fund for Guaranteed Income's first initiative being the Compton Pledge is the leadership of Mayor Brown, who has boldly linked the COVID public health crisis to the pervasive PTSD following decades of police brutality and mass incarceration of communities of color. She is standing with movements in the national rallying cry to defund the police and reinvest in communities. We are unapologetically trying new approaches to that second part of the equation: investing in communities.

What is the long-term political vision for The Fund for Guaranteed Income as it relates to the future of cash transfers in America? And do you think you ensure its success? 

The long-term vision is to re-imagine social policy through a people-led process that crosses class, industry, and race. The aim is to redistribute wealth at scale and realize individuals’ inherent right to share in the nation's socially produced and inherited wealth.

We need to set a standard that organizers and people with the lived experience of harm from today's existing systems are the experts in the policymaking arena.

What will make or break this ambitious vision for society and its institutions is an ability to coordinate with national movements and organizers, academics, policymakers, and politicians.  A coalition of organizations like Black Lives Matter, One Fair Wage, National Council Essie Justice Group, A New Way of Life, Brotherhood Crusade have taken the pledge. 

I was talking to Andrea James, the founder of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and she said this incredible phrase that I can't get out of my mind. She said, "Whether we win, lose, or draw, it’s a win for us. It's going to change things." 

The conversation of what the government owes people has really shifted. In the 60’s Nixon was talking about wealth transfers. Clinton initiated welfare reform. Now, bills to provide families with relief during the largest pandemic we have ever seen are stuck in the Senate. How do we move forward? How do you sell this idea in such a politicized climate?

What has persisted throughout welfare reforms is the power dynamics that rationalize and perpetuate a system of rugged capitalism for the poor and socialism for the rich.

75% of Black Americans were excluded from Social Security when it began. There has been this continuous legal exclusion of Black people from the wealth-building apparatuses whether under the New Deal tax laws that relegate fewer resources to communities of color, or white flight and suburbanization under the name of urban renewal.

Pres. Clinton signing Social Security Independent Agency Act

We have this obsession with individualism and the myth of meritocracy. Universal access to education and health was once seen as an unsustainable dream, perhaps, and in America healthcare still might fall into that category. But now, largely, these things are seen as a right. And I think it's time to invest in guaranteed income as a right of all people. It's an investment in humanity.

How do you think politicians should be advocating for UBI? And do you think the CARES Act has made the idea more palatable? 

The CARES Act has proved that when politicians believe we need to fund something, we find the money to fund it. On one hand, the CARES Act has strengthened the case for direct cash transfers. Still, it was a one-time transfer of $1,200 for adults and $500 for a child that left out millions of undocumented and formerly incarcerated people. 

It exposed the frailty of the social safety net and the racial fault lines along which it cracks. I think that politicians should frame guaranteed income as a universal income floor for all residents of America, regardless of legal citizenship status, regardless of whether or not an individual has been formerly incarcerated.

As an organization, do you have any investment or interest in what people do with the capital they are given? 

So much of this space has been focused on how people are spending the money. There have been lots of studies to empirically prove that people don't spend it on temptation goods and drugs and alcohol, and they don’t quit their jobs. And I think that question reifies the welfare stereotypes and racist tropes that have persisted throughout American perspectives on who is and is not deserving. For me, the real question is not how people spend the money, but how a system could justify denying people the breathing room that a guaranteed income would afford. Especially as massive amounts of public dollars fund a criminal legal system that drains government budgets and perpetuates the criminalization of poverty.

We're starting from the basis that the real question isn't: how do people spend the money, or: is this the right policy to pursue?

Our question is not if we should implement guaranteed income, but how

How can citizens in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas participate?

How can you pledge Compton? There are a number of ways. We have a donation page on our website, since we are raising for the cash disbursements, which will go directly to the individuals. You can show us love or share your story on Instagram and Twitter. But, really, you can reach out to your elected officials and pay attention to our policy agenda. The Compton Pledge plans to be passed as a local resolution of the BREATHE Act.

Right now the model is philanthropically funded. Are you hoping to move away from the philanthropy model as this broadens?

Yes. We have a team of people looking into the long-term financing of guaranteed income for the city of Compton, and they are coming out with a report on our plans to do so. It is a cross-institutional working group and there's a bigger conversation to be had about how it can be financed at the state level at the federal level.

It's interesting. The whole idea of philanthropy as a solution — it’s a starting point but feels like that model is also inherently part of the problem you are trying to address. The idea that redistribution is left up to the interest and will of people or institutions that have a lot of capital. 

I completely take your point. I think the Fund for Guaranteed Income is challenging the assumptions of philanthropy itself. Like the notion that wealthy individuals are the natural experts when it comes to designing a more equitable future. It is certainly time for more sore winners in today’s economic system. If an individual decides that they want to redistribute all of their wealth to every single low-income individual in a city, well, we want to build a platform for them to do that and a coalition that will stand behind them.