There’s a lot of talk in Silicon Valley about “basic income,” giving everyone a fixed amount of money to meet basic needs. In a world of precarious work – gig work, part-time and on-demand employment – the idea of a guaranteed minimum income is attracting attention. The tech startup incubator Y Combinator, based in Mountain View, California, is funding a basic income test in Oakland, where the gap between technology haves and have-nots is increasingly visible.
In this once-working class city, the signs of tech money are everywhere. Uber is renovating the old Sears building downtown for its new headquarters. Millennials play bocce and drink cocktails along the redeveloped wharf. One-bedroom apartments rent for $2,400 a month.
“Uber is coming to town,” said longtime resident and community activist John Jones III. “Someone’s going to get six figures. But then somebody’s got to clean the toilet. That’s the reality of employment in a city like Oakland.”
Jones is a life coach at CURYG, Communities United for Restorative Justice. He counsels at-risk youth and adults, many formerly incarcerated like himself. Jones is a proud East Oaklander who noted that his city used to be known as the “Detroit of the West.” At one time, residents could support their families on wages earned in the city’s auto plants, canneries and snack food factories. The Oakland army base provided middle class jobs as well.
But it and several other bases in the region closed in the 1990s. Factories did, too. The corporate headquarters of Safeway, where Jones’ grandparents met, moved to the suburbs.
The Eastmont Town Center in East Oakland tells the story of that decline. “This mall symbolizes decay, it symbolizes neglect, it symbolizes crushed, destroyed dreams,” Jones said as he surveyed the once-thriving complex.
Originally, it housed a Chevy plant. Later, it converted to a popular shopping mall. “It was the place to be,” Jones said.
But Jones said the mall emptied out as Oakland’s manufacturing jobs disappeared. Now the Eastmont Town Center houses social service agencies and a police station.
“The only real viable opportunities here in the Bay Area is the high-skill, high-paying tech sector,” Jones said. “However, there isn’t a real pipeline for folks who live in communities like East Oakland and West Oakland to go work for a Google or an Apple.”
In West Oakland, a historically African-American neighborhood that is quickly gentrifying, Joyce Guy tries to place residents in construction and warehouse jobs as a senior program manager at the West Oakland Job Resource Center. But the warehouses are increasingly automated and the jobs unsteady. “More often than not, they will tell the person, 'you go in there and work hard, this company’s going to hire you permanently,' when that is the furthest from the truth,” Guy said.
Even amid Oakland’s job insecurity, not everyone is convinced giving people a monthly government stipend, a “basic income,” is the answer. Jennifer Lin, deputy director of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, said civic leaders should also be trying to promote full-time work, raising wages and reinforcing renter protections. Oakland’s minimum wage will rise to $12.86 an hour next month.
Lin posed the question: can tech wealth benefit everyone in Oakland, or will it end up simply creating another “playground” for the technorati?