One of my favorite parts of going out in Palm Springs is the come-as-you-are ethos. Cocktail attire might mean sequins, caftans or a good pair of jeans. Naturist hotels sit in unassuming neighborhoods. Bras are optional.
But lately, we’ve seen an ugly wave of transphobia triggered in large part by misinformation—a wave that hardly squares with the welcoming and accepting atmosphere for which the city of Palm Springs is known.
In late March, the Palm Springs City Council voted to give $200,000 to a pair of organizations looking to pilot a first-of-its-kind guaranteed income program for transgender or nonbinary residents. Queer Works and DAP Health will use the money to support their application to the California Department of Social Services’ $35 million Guaranteed Income Pilot Program initiative.
They envision a pilot that could provide a fixed dollar amount each month to transgender residents. But most of the details—like how much money, and who is eligible—will be worked out during a six-month application and design phase. The council stopped short of committing funds directly to the program.
Yet this fairly incremental and innocuous step was quickly picked up by the national news and incorrectly portrayed in right-wing media circles. Fox News proclaimed: “Palm Springs mayor pushing to pay transgender and nonbinary residents,” despite the fact that Mayor Lisa Middleton, who is a trans woman, expressed reservations about the long-term viability of the proposal.
This outpouring of identity-based fear-mongering coming from right-wing and/or over-dramatic media outlets grossly mischaracterizes what’s basically a local policy experiment—similar to other experiments happening all over the country.
Madeline Neighly, the director of guaranteed income at the Economic Security Project, said there’s been a dramatic increase in the development of unrestricted assistance programs in the past two years. She heads up a best-practices group of advocates and policymakers that has grown from 125 members to nearly 400—with the popularity due in large part to COVID-19 stimulus checks showing the power of putting cash in people’s hands.
“Unrestricted cash allows you to meet your needs as they come up,” she said. “Each community has their own needs, but cash is a solution that crosses those boundaries.”
By definition, guaranteed income programs are meant to address the needs of a specific population, Neighly said, whether that’s LGBTQ+ people, seniors or people of color.
The outcomes of experimental programs so far show how impactful a small amount of cash can be: The city of Stockton’s SEED program sent $500 a month for two years to 125 randomly selected individuals. Some people secured better jobs, while others reported decreases in anxiety and depression, because the extra money made it that much easier for them to make ends meet.
Some programs can be designed to help families stabilize their finances: Magnolia Mother’s Trust provides $1,000 a month to Black mothers in Jackson, Miss., and is currently in its fourth round.
Neighly wasn’t familiar with any examples to specifically aid transgender or nonbinary people. But she pointed to data that shows how little transgender people generally earn compared to cisgender folks. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation found, for example, that a trans woman earns 60 cents on the dollar compared to other workers.
“When we think about building an economic floor and targeting those with support for the most need, it makes sense to pilot this and demonstrate this with a community we know is disproportionately low-wage,” she said.
Unfortunately, the rhetoric surrounding these pilot programs often gets racist, classist or sexist. There’s “an ugly history” in our country of determining who is valuable, Neighly said.
“Those tropes continue to underlie some of the arguments we hear against (guaranteed income),” she said.
Jacob Rostovsky, the founder and CEO of Queer Works, who is spearheading the grant application, is a longtime trans advocate. So when the Fox News segment aired, and he started getting threatening and transphobic calls from all over the country, he wasn’t exactly surprised. What was especially concerning was that some of those calls came from Palm Springs residents.
“It’s like, this person lives in the city; this could be my neighbor,” he said.
That part, he said, is “disappointing”—especially when the details of the proposal are still being worked out.
“This is what my community needs, to have this little extra leg up to find the additional resources to continue to survive,” Rostovsky said. “This money could mean not having to decide whether to eat or have a safe place to sleep.”
There are certainly debates to have about the good, the bad and the ugly of social safety-net programs. But how would fellow Palm Springs residents be harmed if a handful of community members felt less stress in their day-to-day lives because they had financial support? If they could get a hotel the night before a job interview instead of sleeping on the street? If they could pay a local mechanic to fix their car?
We won’t know how effective these programs can be unless we keep experimenting. And perhaps if people from disadvantaged and oppressed communities have healthier, happier lives, the rest of us will be able to enjoy living in a healthier, happier community, too—one where we don’t have to hurl insults at strangers over lies in order to feel powerful.