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San Francisco Institutes Universal Basic Income Pilot Program for Artists

The San Francisco mayor London Breed last week announced the implementation of a pilot universal basic income program for artists, with $6 million earmarked for $1,000 monthly stipends for up to 130 artists and cultural workers, including teachers. Recipients can expect their first payment in early 2021, with disbursements to continue for at least six months.

The program was one of forty-one proposals delivered by the city’s Economic Recovery Task Force, which was created in April. Convened by Breed and board of supervisors president Norman Yee, the committee is composed of leaders from San Francisco’s business, cultural, education, labor, and nonprofit organizations and is charged with reducing San Francisco’s projected $1.6 billion deficit caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and with discovering ways to offer aid to those deemed most in need. Other fixes proposed by the task force included the allocation of $265,000 for “artists to paint murals with a public health theme on boarded-up businesses and deploy performance artists to promote Covid-safe behaviors in high foot traffic areas.”

The announcement of the UBI program sparked controversy, with critics decrying the singling out of a group of individuals—and a comparatively select few at that—noting that to award basic income to a small segment of the population hardly falls under the rubric of “universal.” Additional confusion surrounds the guidelines, which are sparse and do not specify what qualifications applicants must possess in order to be considered artists.

Others applauded the nonrestrictive nature of the grants and speculated that the program could help keep artists in the city, which is thought to have lost 70 percent of its arts community in recent years due to rising rents. Max Ghenis, founder and president of think tank UBI Center told Reason that one benefit to defining the program as part of UBI is that, unlike with traditional unemployment benefits, applicants need not meet work requirements in order to be eligible. “Sometimes the u [in ‘UBI’] also means unconditional. I think this does pretty much mean that,” he said.

Applications for San Francisco’s universal basic income for artists are open though October 30.

Correction: The amount earmarked for the basic income program is $6 million, not $6 billion.