No Strings Attached

With $500k allocated to Santa Fe Community College students, 100 young families have financial support coming

For many students, juggling school and work presents a formidable challenge. Throw childcare into that equation and the task of staying afloat becomes more difficult for student-parents simultaneously managing classes, jobs and kids.

A new guaranteed income pilot program, approved by the City Council on Wednesday, will provide 100 student-parents enrolled in Santa Fe Community College with $400 a month for a year. The program’s goal: Provide students with a reliable source of income to help parents stay enrolled in college while raising their children.

In all, the council approved $500,000 the city obtained through a national mayors’ group grant to fund the program.

The vote—and the program—mark the city’s first foray, albeit with a college student population, into guaranteed income, which has become a calling-card issue for progressives around the nation (and in Santa Fe), as well as a flashpoint and occasional bogeyman for conservatives and fiscal hawks who say it’s a slippery slope toward socialism.

The issue polls along an even split nationally; it appears there’s been no public survey at the state or local levels on whether what’s often called “universal basic income” is favored here.

In Santa Fe, the first look at such a program will come at SFCC.

Rachel Kutcher, a project director with Santa Fe Community Foundation, points out that student-parents are more likely to leave school without a degree and with more debt than their non-parenting peers.

“A lot of that has to do with the fact that they are supporting not only themselves but a family. They’ve got childcare costs, they’ve got other costs for their kids,” she tells SFR.

By targeting parents, program proponents hope to close that gap. The monthly check comes with no strings attached. Young families can “use it for whatever,” says Yash Morimoto, the college’s associate vice president for planning and institutional effectiveness.

“This is money going to people who need it the most,” Morimoto tells SFR. “Most of our students report they’re juggling multiple jobs and going to school at the same time.”

Morimoto explains that many of those students, including young parents, are not part-time by choice.

“It’s because there’s so many other life responsibilities, from childcare to making an income,” he says, adding that those who go to school part-time have lower chances of success than their full-time peers—that gap in success is a result of finances.

Research conducted by the college confirms money remains the primary barrier to graduation. In a survey of students who left the college before attaining a degree, 57% indicated that they left due to financial burdens.

Parents make up a third of SFCC’s student population, most of them under the age of 30. SFCC will encourage eligible young parents enrolled in August to apply for the program—from which students will be randomly selected to receive the benefits.

Though support for the program was widespread among those SFR spoke to for this story, favor around the country for guaranteed income is not equally popular.

A report from the Pew Research Center shows that a slight majority (54%) of Americans oppose a universal basic income, with partisan lines largely defining the split. Republicans broadly opposed the idea of the government providing guaranteed income, while Democrats were supportive.

The idea of basic income dates back to the 18th century, when Thomas Paine argued for income for all, a torch later carried by Martin Luther King Jr. and, wait for it...President Richard Nixon.

While the division falls along party lines, there is little debate in Santa Fe over the need and efficacy of a program like the one the council approved this week—or even expanding it beyond the walls of SFCC.

“The difference between people who have money and the people who don’t have money, is money,” Mayor Alan Webber said at Wednesday’s meeting. His efforts to get money in the pockets of Santa Feans started when he signed onto Mayors for a Guaranteed Income last year. The network of mayors funded the $500,000 grant that will be distributed to SFCC student-parents starting next academic year.

Kyra Ochoa, the city’s Community Health and Safety Department director, says the program addresses the “Catch-22” of financial instability. People struggling to make ends meet have more challenges trying to focus on their careers or studies, which prevent families from getting ahead.

The small, steady payments the program offers, Ochoa says, provides “a bridge of financial security for folks.”

The city points to research showing the success of identical programs in other cities around the country. Though gaps in the research remain: Not enough time has passed since the first Mayors for a Guaranteed Income program began to study the long-term benefits.

Santa Fe will contribute to that research.

“It’s really exciting to be feeding into a national exploration of this guaranteed income as a policy and as an investment for communities that have struggled,” Ochoa says. “What we learn in Santa Fe will help us inform Santa Fe policy and state policy, but also potentially we will contribute to a national conversation.”

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