Inside the nation's largest guaranteed income experiment

The family was only able to afford the meal because Leo is part of a groundbreaking guaranteed income experiment in his city called the Compton Pledge. In regular installments between late 2020 and the end of 2022, Leo and 799 other individuals are receiving up to $7,200 annually to spend however they like. Leo, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who TIME has agreed to refer to by a pseudonym to protect his identity, receives quarterly payments of $900.

The organization running Compton Pledge, called the Fund for Guaranteed Income, is building the technological infrastructure necessary to distribute cash payments on a broad scale and has partnered with an independent research group to study the extent to which a minimum income floor can lift families like Leo’s out of poverty. The pilot, which distributes money derived from private donors, is not just about giving people the ability to buy small indulgences. It’s testing whether giving poor families a financial cushion can have a demonstrable impact on their physical and psychological health, job prospects and communities. And perhaps the biggest question of all: Can these cash infusions transcend their status as a small research project in progressive Los Angeles and someday work as a nationwide program funded by taxpayers?

The theory is gaining momentum in the U.S. Six years ago, there were no programs distributing and studying the effects of providing swaths of Americans no-strings-attached cash, according to Stanford’s Basic Income Lab, an academic hub tracking such programs. But now, pilot programs are taking place in roughly 20 cities around the country, from St. Paul, Minnesota to Paterson, New Jersey, with Compton’s exercise serving as the nation’s largest city-based experiment in terms of number of people served. Most of the programs are philanthropically funded—including Compton’s—and distribute different amounts of money to targeted populations, from Black pregnant women to former foster children to single parents. These laboratories for wealth redistribution all have one thing in common: they give some of society’s poorest and most marginalized people cold-hard cash, and then let them spend it however they want.