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Saundra Sorenson
Published: 22 March 2023

The Oregon legislature is considering a bill that supporters argue could set a path to statewide universal basic income. 

Senate Bill 603 would launch a two-year program to provide $1,000 monthly unrestricted cash payments to 100 households and individuals who qualify for housing assistance but languish on waitlists. 

The People's Housing Assistance Fund Demonstration Program would be overseen by the Department of Human Services, with Portland State University's Homeless Research and Action Collaborative studying the program and delivering a report in fall 2024.

During a recent public hearing, many pointed to pandemic-era stimulus checks as evidence that unrestricted, direct-cash payments were the most efficient way to help low-income households.  

“During the pandemic, we saw a dramatic reduction in poverty with the direct cash provided by stimulus checks,” Rebecca Markley of the organization Residents Organizing for Change (ROC) told the state Senate Committee on Housing and Development.

“ROC members have told me that that money was a lifeline.

"As emergency SNAP benefits end and massive rent increases happen in every community across our state, our legislature needs to take bold action. When you support SB 603, you are giving people who have been left behind by our housing system and are suffering, a chance to get their needs met.”

In addition to the end of emergency food assistance programs, and in the wake of the eviction moratorium’s end, nationwide data shows median rents have soured by just over 19% in the 50 largest metro areas in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Labor, wages have only increased by about 5% in the same timeframe.

“As we all intuitively understand, higher incomes allow households to meet more of their most important needs with the flexibility and autonomy to respond to their individual circumstances. Where similar programs have been tested elsewhere, they have proven to be extremely effective in improving the health, stability and well-being of low-income people,” Cameron Herrington of the Oregon Housing Alliance testified.

wlnsvey campos 2023 introSen. Wlnsvey Campos (D-Aloha)From the city of Stockton, Calif. to the nations of Finland, Kenya and others, guaranteed income programs have been introduced on the small scale, allowing policy makers to observe the impact of direct cash transfers to often vulnerable populations. The idea of a universal basic income is not new, but has recently gained traction with proponents like former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, and organizations like Mayors for a Guaranteed Income in the U.S. emphasize who claim that such measures would end poverty.

Sen. Wlnsvey Campos (D-Aloha) served as chief sponsor of the bill. 

“I have seen the ways in which there are different areas across the state, for example, where Section 8 is unavailable,” she said.

“Today, one out of every four Oregonians with low incomes receive help paying rent from federal programs.

"But as somebody who has worked as a case manager in the space to get folks into housing, I’ve seen how difficult it is for struggling families to get the resources they need, and what a tremendous impact financial assistance has on those families. Which is why we bring you SB 603, to get reliable information about the benefits of providing consistent, direct financial support to struggling Oregonians, and to use that data to inform our actions to support these Oregonians as the legislature moves forward.” 

Data from other such programs internationally arrives at the same conclusion: That providing guaranteed income – even income that is not enough to fully substitute a salary – takes participants out of the survival mindset, leading to improved physical and mental health outcomes and family stability.

“While this bill would be the first of its kind to test a statewide program, the concept has been tested and is gaining momentum, really, around the world,” Herrington said. 

Case Studies

Supporters explained the bill would allow researchers at PSU to design their own research design and protocols in studying the program. 

“We believe with the amount of appropriation in the amended bill, that this would allow somewhere in the range of 1,000 households to participate in the study, which Portland State is confident would allow them to produce very robust research findings that test specifically how this kind of direct cash assistance impacts households around the state that are facing vulnerability to their housing stability,” Herrington said. 

Unrestricted Payments

Victory Hall, ROC member and a former housing case manager, explained how she had seen vulnerable populations spend unrestricted cash payments. 

kayse jama 2023 introSen. Kayse Jama (D-Portland)“When the folks that I was looking for housing with received stimulus money, some of the questions that have been asked was, what will they spend the money on? How will folks use the money if they’re homeless? I saw firsthand what folks will use the money on, most of them worked really hard to put it away. When someone is houseless, it’s very expensive. You don’t have a place to cook food, you don’t have a place to take a shower. A lot of folks that do live in shelters actually work. They still have to be able to eat, do laundry. It’s very difficult to navigate. Having a little bit of extra money that you don’t have to worry about getting was such a relief for folks. They did save it. And then when they get housed, trying to find furniture, cleaning supplies… this money would help people in that way. They could put it aside to plan for those things. 

“We stigmatize low-income people so much. We assume they’re going to do things with the money that isn’t beneficial to them. It’s not correct, I’ve seen it over and over. Even people who use substances, have mental health issues, they’re very resourceful.” 

While Sen. Dick Anderson (R-Lincoln City) voiced his concern that the bill did nothing to increase the actual housing stock, committee chair Kayse Jama (D-Portland) expressed his support for the program. 

“It’s a fascinating model,” he said. “It’s definitely getting momentum. But I think it’s also, the study shows that when somebody gets extra dollars that they don’t have otherwise, it helps them to plan better, it helps them to succeed.”

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