The Chicago City Council is poised to vote this week on what would be one of the nation’s largest basic income programs, giving 5,000 low-income households $500 per month each using federal funding from the pandemic stimulus package enacted this year.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) has proposed the more than $31 million program as part of her 2022 budget, which the city council is scheduled to consider on Wednesday. The one-year pilot program, funded by the nearly $2 billion Chicago received from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, is supported by most of city’s 50 aldermen. But it has received pushback from the 20-member Black Caucus, which has urged Lightfoot to redirect the money to violence prevention programs.
Lightfoot has said the pilot program is motivated by her own childhood memories of hardship while growing up in Ohio. “I knew what it felt like to live check to check. When you’re in need, every bit of income helps,” she wrote in a tweet announcing the plan earlier this month.
Basic income programs have been spreading across the country since Stockton, Calif., started providing monthly stipends with no strings attached to 125 of its residents in 2019. Those stipends resulted in more full-time employment and improved mental and emotional well-being among recipients, according to preliminary findings reported earlier this year by researchers who helped design the program.
Michael Tubbs, who implemented the program as then-mayor of Stockton, noted that recipients’ largest expenditure was food, making up at least a third of spending each month, according to the report. “I had no idea so many people in my area were hungry,” Tubbs said.
Since Stockton’s program launched, about 40 other cities have considered or started on similar efforts to target economic insecurity within their boundaries, according to Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, including Denver, Newark, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, New Orleans and Compton, Calif. A program in Los Angeles will provide 2,000 residents with a guaranteed income of $1,000 a month for a year.
The surge of interest in basic income has been fueled in part by the influx of money that cities have received from the coronavirus stimulus package and the formation of Mayors for Universal Basic Income, an advocacy coalition that Tubbs founded last year.
Critics worry that guaranteed income programs will discourage people from finding jobs and drain the labor force, a particular concern amid the record job openings in the country this year, said Michael Faulkender, who served as an assistant treasury secretary for economic policy during the Trump administration. Last week, the National Federation of Independent Business reported that 51 percent of small business owners have jobs they cannot fill, more than double the historical average of 22 percent.
“There are still millions of low-skilled jobs out there, and you have small business owners who can’t find workers to join their companies,” said Faulkender, who teaches finance at the University of Maryland. Proposals like the one in Chicago feed the “process of reducing the willingness of people to participate in the workforce,” he said.
Opposition to federal entitlement programs, such as rent vouchers and food stamps, has been waged for decades, but advocates like Tubbs say that today, “the climate has changed.” Economic blows struck by recent natural disasters and the pandemic have proven that “the economy doesn’t work for a vast number of Americans,” he said.