For years, Kipp Kahlia felt stuck. The Long Beach guitarist used to tour the country with reggae artists. But 20 years ago, after contracting intestinal parasites on a trip abroad, Kahlia had to take a step back from gigging.
Her health deteriorated and visits to doctors drained her savings. Recently she decided to start a business performing social justice songs at events. But with no extra funds or time, she had to pause the venture.
“With all the struggling I was doing, my attitude took a hit,” Kahlia said. “The more you witness yourself being down and out, the more you feel down and out, and the more stuck you feel.”
Now Kahlia is getting a chance to get unstuck. Kahlia was selected as one of 1,000 participants in L.A. County’s guaranteed income program, called Breathe.
It’s one of the largest guaranteed income programs in the nation, giving participants $1,000 a month over three years, more money over a longer period of time than other similar income programs. Last year, the program added an additional 200 participants who are former foster youth.
The pilot program will allow researchers to track its impact in a large, diverse region, said Sean Kline, director of the Stanford Basic Income Lab, which studies guaranteed income programs across the country.
“Whenever L.A. city or county or Chicago or New York do something bold like this, it’s a really important signal that this big policy idea found its footing during COVID and represents a possible way forward in terms of supporting low income people across America,” Kline said.
One question the Breathe program raises, Kline said, is what does it mean to have extra money for months versus several years? “If you knew the money was coming for three years, it’s a much longer runway. Can you go back to school? Can you quit your job now and look for a new one? Can you care for your aging parents?”
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are surveying the 1,000 Breathe participants, along with a control group of people not receiving funds. Every six months, program participants and members in the control group receive the same survey questions about their wellbeing, financially and mentally, said Amy Castro, director of Penn’s Center for Guaranteed Income Research.
Program participants are assigned a personal coach to guide them through any needs, financial or otherwise, that arise during the duration of the program.
Guaranteed income pilot programs first garnered mainstream attention in 2019, when Stockton launched a pilot program in his city, giving families $500 monthly for two years. The idea was to see how people use financial aid when it doesn’t have restrictions.
That pilot is one of the only experiments with published study results. While there were positive impacts on mental health and wellbeing the first year, when the pandemic broke out, the benefits were less pronounced, according to Penn’s research.
Interest nevertheless grew in the last few years as COVID-19 exacerbated income inequality throughout California, researchers said.
Advocates point to the expansion of the federal child tax credit as proof that direct cash payments to families reduce poverty. In 2021 child poverty decreased to 9% from 17.6% in 2019.
Since then, guaranteed income programs’ popularity remains strong at the local and state level. In the last two years, there have been 150 to 200 guaranteed income pilot programs launched in the U.S. In California, more than 12,000 people received money through several dozen similar pilots.
Still some opponents said these types of programs discourage participation in the labor market, are too costly, and fail to sufficiently reform the welfare system to bring working people out of poverty.
In November 2023, California launched its first state-funded guaranteed income pilot programs focused on former foster youth. The pilots will give 150 Ventura County residents $1,000 and 150 San Francisco residents $1,200 monthly.
“There is so much we don’t know yet,” Castro said. “We don’t know how long people need to receive cash to create what level of change.”
More than halfway through the Breathe program, Kahlia said she and her business remain a work in progress, but the funds have given her an ability to move forward in a way she hadn’t before.
“It’s taking me from always putting out fires to being able to actually make some moves to advance, not just being stuck,” Kahlia said.
The money came at the perfect time. Because of the pandemic, Kahlia had stopped teaching guitar lessons in person at parks and recreation centers and transitioned to virtual teaching. But one by one, her clients dropped off.
“I didn’t expect to be accepted,” to the Breathe program, Kahlia said. “When I was, I was really, really pleasantly surprised. It definitely took the edge off.”
She figured $1,000 a month for three years would be enough to start investing in her business. She performed in a few experimental shows in 2017 when she sang about social justice issues and got positive responses from audiences.
Singing about social justice allows Kahlia to be a performer again and return to her roots as a reggae artist. She promised herself she would make this business work and focus on her health.
As the world recovered post-pandemic, Kahlia resumed giving virtual guitar lessons from her living room. During the lessons, she sits on a narrow carpet with a binder filled with sheet music propped in front of her. She places lamps near her laptop so students can see her well.
Kahlia said she doesn’t keep track of how she spends the Breathe money. A lot of it has gone to health expenses, and some has gone to her business. But she also spends it on day-to-day things like groceries, or a taco night out with friends, she said.
Her biggest expense has been a new car she leased after her 28-year-old Toyota Corolla started breaking down.
Kahlia thought if she was going to meet clients for her business, showing up in an old, dinged up car wouldn’t do a lot for her image.
Other smaller expenses include spending money on a website for her business and hiring a freelance IT worker.
Under other circumstances, Kahlia would have thought twice before spending that money.
“I’m probably getting more comfortable with spending money,” she said. “Just learning to say yes to stuff.
“There’s some stuff that, at the beginning of the program I felt was, you know, almost extravagant. And now I’m like ‘Oh my god, I really needed that for my business to move forward.’”
Though data from the L.A. County guaranteed income program is limited, the Stanford Guaranteed Income Lab tracks 31 pilot programs throughout the country, including the Breathe pilot.
The lab found, in general, that food and groceries are the top way participants are spending money, making up 35% of the funds spent. Retail sales and services are a close second at 31%.
Participants also spent the money on transportation (10%) and housing and utilities (8%). They spend a smaller percentage on educational expenses, miscellaneous expenses and health care or medical expenses.
There’s also anecdotal evidence that participants are spending some on things that may help them build wealth, like starting a business or saving for a down payment on a home, said Brian Arredondo, a coach for program participants.
The program’s coaches, provided through Wilmington-based Strength Based Community Change, personally support participants as their lives change.
Arredondo regularly checks in with about 300 participants. He said participants come to him with a huge variety of needs, from questions about investing and money management to how to find a good mechanic.
He assists them in applying for state programs, such as CalFresh, and helps some enroll in schools or colleges. He even has helped families sign their kids up on sports teams with the extra funds.
Strength Based Community Change also offers workshops on financial literacy, investing and credit repair.
When Kahlia wanted to lease a new car, she went to Arredondo, who helped her research the used car market. He has helped other participants look for new cars and accompanied them to dealerships.
“People need help with normal, everyday interactions that may be easy for some individuals,” he said. “But for others, they don’t have any prior experience with them.”
Researchers and advocates stress how no-strings-attached cash not only improves peoples’ financial situations, but gives them peace of mind and improves mental health.
Participants report feeling more free to spend money on self care, outings with family members or sharing their wealth with community members. It’s those hard-to-measure impacts that are key, said Ely Fournier, who oversees the program coaches at Strength Based Community Change.
“It can’t just be the money,” Fournier said. “It’s the opportunity and the access to experiences sometimes that really make a big difference when there is even a little bit more resources folks can have. ”
A year and a half into the program, Kahlia’s business isn’t off the ground yet. But she’s made some progress. The program funds have given her time, she said. Normally she’d be stuck in a cycle of teaching guitar lessons to make money, but wouldn’t have time for her business.
Now Kahlia is taking a step back from teaching and spending time writing new arrangements of music to perform for clients. She’s working on updating her website and making calls to potential clients.
“I haven’t gotten to the sexy part yet,” Kahlia said. “I had to get stronger and healthier, clear space, and lay a foundation first. Pulling yourself out of a hole often doesn’t look dramatic. For me it’s been the ability to do some fairly tedious stuff over an extended period of time, over and over again.”