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Sonoma County will be spearheading a pilot program to provide a guaranteed minimum income to over 300 low-income families to study whether poverty is reduced and economic mobility is enhanced, the county announced.

The Pathway to Income Equity program began taking applications this month.

The two-year program will provide 305 families with $500 a month and is a collaboration between several entities and cities, including the Sonoma County Basic Income Coalition. The program is being funded by the county Board of Supervisors and city councils from Healdsburg, Santa Rosa and Petaluma.

“Many in our community continue to struggle to afford their basic needs,” said Sonoma County Board of Supervisors chair James Gore in a statement about the program. “This Guaranteed Income pilot will ensure that participating families can cover expenses not covered by other benefits such as rental assistance and food stamps, which are insufficient, especially for families with young children.”

Families must live in the county, have an income up to 185 percent above the federal poverty level depending on the size of the family, be pregnant or already have a child under the age of 6 and have experienced adverse economic impacts due to the pandemic.

The county cites a 2021 United Ways of California study that found 52 percent of families in Sonoma County with children under 6 struggled to cover basic needs, especially those with single mothers. The study showed issues of inequity, too: 70 percent of struggling households in the county are Black, Latino, Asian or Native American, according to the study.

Planting the SEED

The city of Stockton was the first in the nation to launch a similar program in 2019. The city gave some low-income residents $500 a month and is hailing it as a success. In a statement released in March of this year from Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, or SEED, which piloted the program, facilitators say that job prospects, economic stability, and overall well-being of participants improved “drastically.”

SEED says that participants got full-time employment at twice the rate of those who were not in the program and that people spent the money on basic needs like food (nearly 37 percent), sales and merchandise (21 percent), utilities (11 percent), and auto costs (10 percent). SEED officials say that only 1 percent of the funding went to alcohol or tobacco.

The coalition from Sonoma County will track and analyze the experiences of the families in the pilot program, documenting its impact on things like family functioning, child development and mental health.

The Sonoma County Guaranteed Basic Income Coalition is led by First 5 Sonoma County in partnership with the nonprofit Fund for Guaranteed Income, which will disburse the cash transfers. Additional funding for the pilot program will come from $3 million from the Board of Supervisors, $1 million from the city of Santa Rosa, and $636,000 from Petaluma. Healdsburg nonprofit Corazon will also contribute $600,000, $250,000 of which came from the city of Healdsburg. Roughly $200,000 will come from First 5 Sonoma County through a tobacco tax, California’s Proposition 10, approved by the state’s voters in 1998.

The deadline to apply to the program is Oct. 31.