A New UBI Pilot is Targeting Former Foster Kids in Silicon Valley

“From freshman year to senior year I was in 21 different placements — group homes [and] foster homes. It was hard to go to school, especially. It also really affected me because I never really felt like anywhere was home.” Kody Hart, an upbeat person with a positive outlook, will be 25 in August. He aged out of the foster care system when he was 18, after six years of state-run care. He doesn’t have family money to fall back on and is working hard to stay afloat, pay off educational debt, and find a way to move out of the increasingly expensive Bay Area.

Every year, 150 young people age out of the foster care system in California’s Santa Clara County. Statewide, 90 percent of foster youth don’t have a source of income when they leave state care, and between rent, school, clothing, food, and other living expenses, surviving in the Bay Area as a foster youth in transition is difficult.

The average cost of rent in San Jose, located in the southern part of the county, is $2,790. Up to 50 percent of foster youth experience homelessness when they leave state care, and in Santa Clara County alone, nearly 50 percent of those under the age of 25 who lack access to shelter had spent some time in the foster care system. Statewide, nearly 50 percent of foster youth are chronically absent from school, 60 percent of foster youth in transition don’t have a high school diploma, and most don’t go on to obtain a college degree. As a result, many higher-paying jobs are not accessible.

A new pilot program put forth by the county’s Board of Supervisors aims to make life easier for young people like Hart by providing the country’s first universal basic income for foster youth in transition. A universal basic income has been shown to increase educational attainment, health care coverage, and provide access to healthier food for all people, but results are especially pronounced for people who are low-income.

For a 12-month period that started in June 2020, eligible young adults will receive $1,000 every month, no strings attached. The program is designed for young adults aged 21 to 24 — an age range at which many become ineligible for other social safety net programs — and eligibility is based on a number of factors, with higher priority given to 24-year-olds. Young adults must have been dependents of Santa Clara County between the ages of 16 and 21, and must currently live in the county.

For 23-year-old Bayleen Solorio, the UBI payments she’ll receive through the county will help her address her number one issue: housing. Before the onset of the pandemic, she was “tight on cash,” and now that businesses are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s working one shift per week at her job. The UBI is coming at the right time, but it still might not be enough to last through this economic downturn.

Solorio said the UBI program will offer her “that extra cushion I [need] to afford to pay off my debts.” The program “is going to help me a lot with financial struggles,” she said, and potentially address years of inadequate financial support. Solorio says that her main emotional struggle now is navigating her depression, and the UBI will make it easier for her to manage daily life.

For most, if not all, of the 72 young people enrolled in the program, the UBI isn’t just a guarantee of income, but a pathway to continue school and an opportunity to step back and think more broadly about their lives, rather than just focusing on the day-to-day. Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said that county staff will check in with the recipients every three months to offer financial guidance that they may not have received elsewhere.

Foster children don’t have networks and support systems that can help them launch.

Chavez explained that the UBI program was born out of a long-held belief that young people in the “custodial care” of the county community should be cared for as if they were her own — or any parent’s in the area. It’s not an unreasonable approach to early adulthood: 70 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds nationwide are supported financially by their parents, which is its own informal basic income program that keeps young adults afloat while they find their footing.

“Foster children don’t have networks and support systems that can help them launch,” Chavez said, noting that she has long been invested in the wellbeing of her constituents from a “justice” perspective. “When you’re making investments in justice, you’re launching human beings to reach their highest capacity,” she says. As she sees it, providing a UBI isn’t about charity.

This “justice” framework addresses more than the need for financial support: It speaks to the multi-layered challenges that await foster youth in transition when they age out of the state-run system. States largely get to shape policy including when young people “age out” and what financial and social services are made available to them. For instance, in California, some former foster youth are eligible for educational assistance. Most of these funds have an age limit and aren’t necessarily calibrated with the rising cost of living. What’s universal, however, is the way that the foster youth system disconnects young people from their home communities, suffers from chronic underfunding, and doesn’t address emotional and mental needs of foster youth prior to the onset of illnesses.

Chavez is aware of the UBI’s shortcomings, mainly that a fixed income for a certain period of time can’t solve all of the problems with the foster care system. Still, it may keep youth in transition financially solvent while they work out for themselves what adult life looks like. “This small amount of money offers a little bit of [protection]” Chavez said, “For our foster programming this is a new area, that our success or failure of the Board [is measured] as guardians of our children.”

In addition to providing financial guidance to the youth, county staff will conduct routine interviews with recipients of the basic income to evaluate its efficacy. Chavez hopes that the program inspires action in other counties around California and potentially in other states.

“Being in the foster care system did one thing and one thing only: It helped me become codependent,” Hart says. But initiatives like this one could actually allow Hart to build economic independence. “With programs like these, I’m able to actually be comfortable somewhere.”



As Eviction Bans Expire, Renters Turn to Credit Cards

Just off the major traffic artery of 16th Street NW in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where gentrification has forced out generations of Latinx and Black renters, an eight-story apartment building is blanketed with hand-painted signs: “FOOD, NOT RENT” the black-and-red lettering reads. “CANCEL RENT.”

Julissa Pineda, 22, has lived in the building, Richman Towers, with her mother and two brothers for three years. In March, shortly after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of emergency in the city, Pineda was laid off from her job as a restaurant server. Almost immediately, Pineda, who is the main earner in her family, knew she would not be able to afford her rent without borrowing heavily: The family pays $1,950 per month for their two-bedroom apartment. “Sometimes we need to buy a couple things,” she said. “It is necessary to have money.”

Other families, some of whom have called the building home for nearly 30 years, were in similar positions, Pineda said. Many worked paycheck to paycheck in the service industry, and after they lost their jobs, had no idea how they could continue to make rent. Along with other families in her building, Pineda began organizing residents to lobby its landlord for rent forgiveness. But five months into a pandemic that has killed more than 550 people in D.C., neither their public pressure nor private lobbying has been successful.

Pineda says that some of those families — including her own — have resorted to increasingly precarious ways to pay rent, including borrowing money from friends and high-interest lenders, or in the case of other Richman Towers residents, by slapping the balance on a credit card.

Renters in D.C. and around the country are struggling to make their way in a city that’s been flattened by the one-two punch of a pandemic and recession. Even in times of relative regional prosperity, D.C. is a difficult city to live in: It consistently ranks as having one of the most expensive rental markets in the country, as well as one of the nation’s highest rates of income inequality, with the top fifth of earners making about 29 times more than the bottom fifth.

Down the road, how will they pay those credit cards off?

So it’s no surprise that renters are underwater. By mid-June, more than 116,000 people — a figure equal to nearly one in every six people who live in the capitol — had filed for unemployment in D.C. By the end of the first week of June, the percentage of people in D.C. who were able to pay all or part of their rent dropped three points from the same period last year, according to data collected by property management software company RealPage, to under 83 percent, one of the highest drops in the country.

As the effects of historic mass layoffs begin to throttle the economy — and renters’ wallets — rental data indicate that more people than ever are relying on their credit cards to make rent. Those who are able, anyway: 8 percent of people in D.C. are unbanked, and 27 percent don’t have access to a line of credit.

“The concern we have is that these effects would snowball. That [renters] would use these alternative methods to pay rent, and then that high interest becomes a vehicle for more debt to incur,” Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, testified during a June 10 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development, and Insurance. “There is a very real risk of people being forced into homelessness because they’re being forced to find alternative methods to cover their rent costs.”

Two widely used rental management software companies, Entrata and MRI, used data from around the country to report spikes in credit card rent payments of up to 7 percent compared to spring of last year. Other initial studies indicate that up to 18 percent of families using their credit cards to make rent have done so for two months in a row. Meanwhile, housing policy experts are beginning to warn lawmakers about the long-term implications of the practice. “Of course the question then becomes, on down the road, how will they pay those credit cards off?” Andrew Aurand, vice president of research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said of lower-income renters. “It’s troubling. It’s concerning.”

Still, in D.C., some local officials are actually encouraging renters to take on this debt. On June 8, the city’s local trial court created an online payment system that suggests people going through eviction proceedings pay the rent they owe with e-checks and credit or debit cards, with processing fees that cost as much as 2.5 percent of the total transaction.  In an emailed statement to TalkPoverty, a spokesperson for D.C. Superior Court said “It is not required that funds be paid online. As the [court’s] June notice indicates, tenants can continue to pay their landlord.” But while paying rent on a card isn’t mandatory, the mere availability of the offer puts pressure on already cost-burdened residents.

“There are transactional costs associated with all of these different things, but having a 2.5 percent transactional cost to pay for rent is very high,” Harrison said. “And it’s just something that, if you don’t have a lot of income, it’s not something you can budget for.” It’s not uncommon for landlords to try and evict tenants over unpaid bills as small as $25 or $50, or about as much as the extra credit card processing fees they’re faced with paying now.

Visa, meanwhile, reported a 7 percent increase in its quarterly revenue — more than $400 million — since this time last year.



Why Are SNAP Benefits So Confusing That Even Social Workers Can’t Figure Them Out?

Crystal Ortiz, a master’s student studying social work at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, has been receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) benefits since 2017. The $200 a month she received made it possible for her to buy more fresh produce, especially bagged salad kits that made it easier for her to eat a healthy lunch when she didn’t have a lot of food prep time.

This January, that was threatened when she received a letter stating that her benefits would be cancelled if she did not fulfill a 20-hour-a-week work requirement.  When I first met with Ortiz, she stated that “I would have to make major cuts to the food that I get” if she lost her SNAP benefits.

This letter came at the same time that the United States Department of Agriculture finalized the Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs) rule in December 2019. “Able-bodied adults” — defined as not receiving SSI or SSDI, without children, or who are not the caretaker for an adult — are required to work or volunteer 20 hours a week, or participate in an approved workplace training program, in order to maintain their SNAP benefits. Previously, states had been able to apply for waivers to ease those requirements, but the new rule would take that flexibility away and cost up to 700,000 people their benefits.

The ABAWDs rule is not the only restriction on eligibility requirements for SNAP — according to a spokesperson at the Illinois Department of Human Services, students enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programs “more than half-time” are not eligible for the program without a special exemption. Additional restrictions ban SNAP benefits for people who are undocumented, have a drug felony, or have more than $2,250 in assets. Some of these restrictions are established by states, and may vary.

Not having enough food to eat was already a public health emergency.

In theory, a social worker like Crystal should be uniquely positioned to navigate this bureaucracy. However, social workers who use SNAP can have just as difficult of a time understanding the requirements to keep their benefits as the clients they assist. Crystal said that in class discussions about policy changes around SNAP eligibility, there wasn’t always an understanding that students were current or former SNAP recipients who were personally affected by these changes. She also said some professors would broadly mention that resources were available if students needed additional support, but specific resources were not mentioned in course materials. “I would like to see acknowledgement from the school…because if we’re not talking about it, we can’t come together,” she said, adding that this lack of discussion means students are “struggling silently.”

Even with her understanding of the SNAP requirements, Ortiz ultimately lost benefits for two months. To get them reinstated, she set up multiple meetings and phone calls with the Illinois Department of Human Services, which included taking public transit in the middle of a pandemic, waiting outside since the office was only admitting one person at a time, offering to translate for another person in line because another staffer was not available, and then meeting with a caseworker and manager to advocate for herself. The root of the issue, it seems, was her unpaid internship — she was under the impression that it counted as work, but her caseworker believed it did not since it was for class credit.

Crystal’s experience highlights the many different restrictions that already existed in the SNAP ruling even before the proposed expansion of the ABAWD requirement, and how challenging it is trying to parse conflicting information from multiple agencies. But still, even in the midst of the coronavirus, many of the restrictions hold.

Currently, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act only partially suspends the ABAWD rule: If recipients are offered a slot in a designated workfare program, they must participate in the program in order to maintain benefits. A representative from the Illinois Department of Human Services stated that all ABAWD requirements, including the requirements in FFCRA, and eligibility requirements for students receiving SNAP, are suspended until a month after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lifts the Public Health Emergency declaration. Navigating these mixed messages from different agencies can be frustrating for a social worker, but can be downright impossible for the average person unfamiliar with public benefits agencies. A page on the IDHS website states that current SNAP recipients will receive the maximum benefit starting the week of April 6.

The framing around these reversals in policy is focused on maintaining food access “during a public health emergency.” However, not having enough food to eat was already a public health emergency before COVID-19, as demonstrated by the patchwork of food pantries and soup kitchens that had challenges meeting the needs of the communities they serve. As we work to ensure that everyone has enough to eat during the immediate crisis of COVID-19, we can’t lose sight of that basic fact. If the USDA and state agencies can recognize how devastating a lack of food is during COVID-19, to the point where they suspend restrictions on one of their most aggressively means-tested programs, then they should be able to recognize this when there isn’t a pandemic magnifying the hunger crisis that existed before it.



Poor Legal Clients Are Finally Getting a Break in New York

When prospective pro bono clients call a lawyer about domestic violence or divorce, their legal problems are usually connected to other needs. Clients have worries about eviction, prescription drugs, and child care, not just their legal proceedings. “They’re reaching out to me and the firm for necessities,” said Todd Spodek, who offers pro bono services to first responders working during the pandemic.

Legal services organizations and law firms that provide free or reduced fee representation often work closely with other service providers to secure transportation, food, housing, clothes, and other necessities. But legal organizations can’t typically pay for those things directly, thanks to an obscure rule that exists in many states. They can cover filing fees and some required medical exams, but cannot pay for many of the basic things that would prevent clients from getting to court for their cases.

“Human services often have client emergency funds, so it seems like a false distinction that legal services can’t do that,” said Amy Barasch, executive director of Her Justice, an organization focused on representation for women living in poverty. “If you can’t come to court because you don’t have enough money to pay for child care while you are coming to court, that’s going to be an access issue.”

The problem lies with the American Bar Association’s Model Rule 1.8(e), which prohibits lawyers from loaning or giving clients money for anything not directly tied to litigation. At least 11 states, including Louisiana, Alabama, California, and Minnesota, have made efforts to loosen their own versions of Rule 1.8(e) so certain lawyers, mostly those working pro bono or in legal services for low-income clients, can pay on behalf of clients for things that fall outside direct litigation costs.

New York is the latest state to alter Rule1.8(e) in favor of providing aid to poor clients. Changes proposed by a committee at the New York City Bar were approved by the Administrative Board of New York courts on June 18. The push to refine Rule 1.8(e) began two years ago, but was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying state of emergency. In March, the bar modified their ask to request an immediate “humanitarian exception” to the rule for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.

The economic fallout from the pandemic may have pushed the courts to take action on the proposal. The modified rule will allow some lawyers to offer “humanitarian assistance to their clients in dire need,” according to the news advisory released by the New York State Unified Court System.

“New Yorkers are experiencing severe financial consequences as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” writes a previous letter from two New York City Bar committees to members of New York State’s Supreme Court. “Lawyers throughout the state have answered the call to provide pro bono assistance to those dealing with the repercussions of the pandemic.”

Everything you’re supposed to do to get out of poverty ends up costing money.

Indigent clients — those living in poverty who cannot afford to pay a lawyer nor court-related fees — have always needed more than volunteer lawyers are currently able to provide. Now, with job losses ballooning, more clients could enter that indigent category, and it’s likely that more people will be seeking pro bono services for eviction. The amended rule means that pro bono lawyers across New York preparing to take on cases caused or exacerbated by the pandemic now have one more resource open to them.

“Legal aid programs intersect with so many of these issues, unemployment, increased family violence, family separation or unification, eviction, foreclosure, debt problems, elder abuse. And all the things that come from a dip in the economy,” said Don Saunders, vice president of policy at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA).

The coronavirus pandemic, like natural disasters of the past, has had a catastrophic effect on human lives and human systems. “It’s kind of like what happens after a hurricane, after you have immediate first responders, then a host of legal needs come up. We’re worried about housing, homelessness, food and nutrition and healthcare. These are all issues that people have legal rights around.”

These issues are especially pressing for people of color. The pandemic is infecting and killing New York’s residents of color at higher rates than white people, and the inequities will likely continue through the disease’s aftermath. Assistance from lawyers could also help clients who are ineligible for state supports, including undocumented people who are excluded from the stimulus and unemployment benefits. Hamra Ahmad, Her Justice’s director of legal services expects that clients who could benefit the most are those who are undocumented, minors, and/or victims of human trafficking.

Andrew Kent, Fordham Law professor and the primary author of the bar’s report, explained that clients in a financial bind will sometimes settle claims for less than they deserve. For example, “say there is someone who’s been beat up in jail at Rikers Island. If that client is getting pro bono legal help for their case, and let’s suppose that they have a good claim which might be expected to get decent money, maybe $20,000 or $40,000.”

“But if the city or the state comes to them and says we can give you a check for $2,000 today and that person has rent due, or needs costly medical treatment, or their kid needs diapers or whatever it is, that smaller amount of money might be attractive,” said Kent. If a client can’t manage their living expenses through the long court process, they may forgo a higher amount of damages in the end.

“The challenge of getting out of poverty is that everything you’re supposed to do to get out of poverty ends up costing money,” said Barasch. Good pro bono representation is a proven way to better one’s financial situation for the long term, and yet the minimum amount of participation required from clients can still be too expensive. Providing assistance to stabilize clients throughout the process could alleviate some pains and strengthen the possibility of a life-changing result.



Undocufunds Are Supporting Immigrants When the Government Won’t

While millions of taxpayers received CARES Act stimulus checks in the past couple of months, for many millions more, one will never arrive. That’s because undocumented immigrants and their families weren’t covered in the $2 trillion plan. That’s an estimated 6 million tax payers who help fund schools, roads, fire departments, and even the United States Department of the Treasury — the very body tasked with cutting the checks that undocumented people and their families won’t get. While there were some notable attempts to fill this gap — both through individual state efforts and bills put forward in the House and Senate — for the most part, undocumented people remain on their own.

Generally, in non-coronavirus times, undocumented immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits from the federal government, and the current social safety nets of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, SNAP (food stamps), and unemployment benefits don’t usually cover them. The pandemic has exacerbated the lack of governmental support and income inequality — undocumented people don’t work jobs that can be done from home, which has either left them entirely without income during the shutdown (as is the case with restaurant workers) or put them at much higher risk of coming into contact with the coronavirus (since undocumented people are disproportionately likely to be essential workers in fields with poor protections, like farmwork or meatpacking).

That means undocumented people are facing a particularly brutal choice: Either continue to work during a pandemic or lose out on money to purchase food and other necessary resources. Vera Parra, communications director and organizer with Cosecha, a grassroots movement that advocates for undocumented people, explained it like this: “There’s a choice that families are having to make between dying of hunger or dying of coronavirus.”

Now grassroots organizations and local leaders are scrambling to build a financial safety net that will help undocumented folks feed and house themselves during the pandemic because — as long as Mitch McConnell refuses to address the issue — no federal institutional support is coming.

The San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, a collective of over 50 organizations, has begun to create a safety net where there previously was none. Demand is high: bills still need to be paid even if there’s no way to pay them. Serrano said the consortium received over 4,000 applications for its $500 grants, and so far they have been able to award 200 of those applications. While local community members and elected officials have offered supplies and some financial support, Serrano said that “Donations are definitely one of our biggest needs: there is more need than there is funding.”

Undocumented people remain on their own.

The Cosecha fund is hoping to find some support by redistributing stimulus checks. There are a number of people who received CARES Act checks but do not urgently need the funds, either because they have not lost out on work or they would be eligible for unemployment benefits if they do lose their jobs in the future. The Cosecha fund for undocumented residents is asking individuals who are able to donate their stimulus check, either the full amount or a portion of it, to undocumented folks. Their social media campaign raised $1 million in their first round of fundraising, and they’re currently in the process of redistributing the funds to thousands of families.

Since the economy will likely continue to struggle for months, if not years, many undocumented people will continue to be reliant on donations, advocacy, and organizing to stay afloat. Parra said moving forward will require pushing the state and other governing bodies to make more funds available and “demand to be included” in future economic relief packages. Carolina Martin Ramos, the director of programs and advocacy at Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland, California, said given the fact that the labor of undocumented folks and people of color helped to create and sustain the state’s wealth, the lack of adequate and well-funded support networks is, “just more evidence that we really treat some people as disposable and less deserving or less important.”

“It’s really hard,” said Autumn Gonzalez, an organizer with Norcal Resist, an immigrant rights organization located in the Bay Area. Because the fund relies mainly on community support and they don’t have any grant funding, “We’re going to see people evicted [and] enter that cycle of homelessness,” Gonzalez said of the worst-case scenario. “Going down that road would be a nightmare for so many thousands of families.”

Moving forward, Gonzalez said Norcal Resist will apply for grant funding, though it’s a competitive process. Other than that, they’re hoping to reach out to other folks in the area who might be sympathetic to the cause; “it’s definitely a constant worry for us.” And even as businesses start to reopen and life enters a new normal, back rent and lost wages will continue to be a concern.

Like the Norcal Resist fund, which has been supported by the local community, Serrano says that San Diego community members have stepped up. Sustaining that progress will be difficult, she said, but those with the capacity to keep donating, like private companies, should. Ramos sees a potential solution in couching mutual aid and grassroots funding work with local political advocacy. Centro Legal has been working with the City of Oakland and officials from Alameda County to negotiate a stipend for their fund and map out what rent forgiveness (as a long-term solution to housing insecurity) might look like.

Either way, Gonzalez said, “We all keep pushing because we see that there’s a need that’s not being addressed anywhere else. We know that we have to keep doing the work.”