Engaging with the safety net is ordinarily associated with shame and blame. From social constructions of “the welfare mother” (Seccombe, James, & Walters, 1998) to “entitlement” narratives attached to mortgage default and eviction; seeking help means navigating a discourse of who is deemed deserving and undeserving. At the same time, extreme inequality and income volatility continues defining American life—locking entire communities out of upward mobility and into poor social determinants of health. The aforementioned trends have reinvigorated empirical interest in universal basic income, guaranteed income, and cash transfer experiments all of which involve providing money with no strings attached. In 2019 the Stockton Economic Empowerment Program (SEED) began providing 125 randomly selected Stocktonians with a guaranteed income of $500 per month for 18 months, while also engaging in public conversations about re-imagining the social contract.
Participants in the study were recruited through address based sampling from census tracts at or below Stockton’s AMI and invited to complete a mixed-methods survey before being randomized into treatment (the $500) or control. This paper relies on the open-ended responses where respondents (N= 478) were asked how they believed most people would spend the $500. We followed Braun & Clark’s (2006) 5 phases of thematic analysis to ask: How do responses reflect public discourse on deservedness, shame, and blame? To what degree is guaranteed income interpreted differently than safety net benefits? Recursive coding was employed within Dedoose at a semantic level. The authors comparatively coded in three rounds using descriptive codes capturing substance (Saldana, 2009), emotion codes associated with decision-making (Goleman 1996), and value codes reflecting public discourse literature. Code co-occurrence charting was utilized to compare themes across the data set.
Responses fell into three broad categories. First, unlike notions of deservedness, irresponsibility, or vice ordinarily attributed to those receiving any type of government benefit, respondents presumed that most Stocktonians would spend the $500 based on items typically categorized as “responsible” purchases in public discourse like bills, medical care, or paying down debt. Second, presumptions of pervasive financial stress, scarcity, and anxiety among “everyday Stocktonians” were laced throughout the responses. Third, counter to an individualized American discourse of ‘rugged individualism’ and singular household units, respondents also assumed that most people were already pooling their resources throughout an entire family network indicating that while most economic mobility programs presume a nuclear family model, this community presumed the opposite—that the $500 would be stretched across social networks to alleviate scarcity.
Shifts in social welfare legislation often follow shifts in public discourse (Kingdon, 2011). The data suggests that the sample may be associating guaranteed income with a Protestant work ethic frame (Abramovitz, 2019) that is fundamentally different from the notions of deservedness attached to receipt of welfare. This indicates that GI pilots may carry the potential to shift narratives associated with engaging with government assistance.