Are guaranteed-income programs in Illinois working?

Are guaranteed-income programs in Illinois working?
Are guaranteed-income programs in Illinois working?

Thousands of Chicago and Cook County residents got $500 a month the past year from programs that are aiming to give people a little financial cushion.

When Jailyn Brown was selected to join a pilot program that gives cash to people struggling to make ends meet, the 23-year-old could hardly get enough hours at the retail store in Chicago where she worked to cover her expenses. 

Less than six months into the Cook County Promise Guaranteed Income Pilot, Brown found a job as a teacher’s assistant at a daycare center on the North Side that’s paying her $1 less an hour than her retail job. But now she knows she’ll have a full-time consistent weekly schedule. 

“I feel like this is a job that actually gives me purpose, so that’s something that I needed and also something to help with the $500 because it is still hard to actually live off my own checks,” Brown said.

She said the guaranteed income helped get her through the weeks between her last retail paycheck and her first check from the new job. 

She is among thousands of Chicago-area residents who have been taking part in guaranteed-income pilots. Municipalities selected, via lottery, participants at least 18 years old, regardless of immigration status, whose household income was at or below 250% of the federal poverty level to receive $500 for a set period.

Around the country, similar programs are giving people cash with no strings attached. Low-income families are trusted to spend the money as they see fit. Supporters see this as one way to curb poverty. 

To get an idea of how these efforts are working, the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ tracked participants of three guaranteed-income programs in the Chicago area. They said they used the monthly payments to cover everyday expenses including groceries, rent and transportation. Most see the programs as a success, though many want them to last longer. 

The pilot programs offer an innovative way of tackling poverty. But experts and policy-makers caution that short-term programs like these won’t solve all of the financial hurdles families are facing. 

Still, they help, according to the participants and the researchers. They say a monthly income floor helps keep people from falling deeper into debt and poverty. 

Shantá Robinson, who teaches at the University of Chicago, is among the scholars involved with the school’s Inclusive Economy Lab, studying the region’s guaranteed-income pilots. She said an initial look at the data shows that, compared to all Chicagoans who were eligible for the program, participants skewed slightly younger and were more likely to identify as female and have children. They are also more likely to identify as Black or African American. 

“The vast majority of the participants… are fully employed and drastically underpaid for the hours that they’re working,” Robinson said.

Guaranteed-income programs provide a fixed amount of direct cash assistance to a specific population. These efforts differ from a universal income program, which would provide payments to everyone. The Cook County program required participants to have a household income at or below 250% of the federal poverty level, which is $33,975 or less for a single person. 

The Cook County and Chicago pilots were funded via the American Rescue Plan Act as part of coronavirus pandemic recovery efforts. 

The county pilot, in its first year, runs through December 2024. 

Cook County spokesman Nick Mathiowdis said the seventh payments have gone to participants and that county officials are “committed to a permanent program” after the pilot ends. He said possible funding options include tapping cannabis tax revenue and money from the Cook County Equity Fund. 

The 5,000 participants in the Chicago Resilient Communities Pilot will get their last $500 this summer — with the final payments expected issued by July 31. More than half of the participants — 3,730 — who started with the program last June received their last $500 in May. 

Four participants didn’t finish the program because they moved out of Chicago and thus were ineligible. Another five died, and the remaining payments were transferred to another household member, according to Stephen Crano, a City Hall spokesman. 

At the Basic Income Guarantee Conference in June, Mayor Brandon Johnson said he’s committed to expanding the program, though he did not say how.

There are other similar pilots in the region, publicly and privately funded. The nonprofit Equity and Transformation, called EAT, has a guaranteed-income program called the Chicago Future Fund, providing more than 100 formerly incarcerated people, particularly on the West Side, $500 in cash for a year. Evanston has its own guaranteed-income pilot, providing 150 households with $500 a month for a year.

Most of the participants in the city, county and EAT programs said they wanted them to last longer.

Brown said she wants to use the payments to build her savings or start her own business. So far, though, she said she has needed to use the money to pay for essentials. She wasn’t able to finish college after her grades slipped during the pandemic and later lost her grandmother, who’d played a central role in her life. 

“Right now, my goals are to figure out the things that I want out of life for myself,”

Brown said. 

As a researcher who interviews program participants, Shantá Robinson said she was surprised how many people view their financial problems as personal faults.

“When I listen to an hour of them talking about their lives and where they’ve come from and the decisions that they’ve made and why they’ve made them, I come to a very different conclusion,” Robinson said. “They’re not internal failings. In fact, most of these people have worked double, if not triple, hard to get ahead to get some stability, to get some mobility. And, at every turn, structures have been in their way, systems that we’ve designed.” 

She said the pilots shouldn’t be viewed as a panacea for fighting poverty. 

“People have this misconception or misperception that giving folks either a onetime economic stimulus or even extended over a year will… not only catapult them into the middle class but give them everything they need in order to maintain that new economic status,” Robinson said. “That’s not what’s going to happen.”

She said systemic challenges have put participants and their families into cycles of poverty for generations, and it will take more than a year of stimulus to reverse things. 

“The things that got them there will be the things that get them out,”

Robinson said. Guaranteed-income pilots don’t “put people into the middle class because there’s not that systemic investment in themselves, their children’s schools, their jobs. This isn’t giving people health care.”

Robinson said she and the other University of Chicago researchers are wrapping up their final interviews with the Chicago pilot participants and beginning to look at the county’s program. She expects the Inclusive Economy Lab to release more data in the next year. 

Stacia West, co-founding director of the Center for Guaranteed Income Research at the University of Pennsylvania, said her research has found that short-term guaranteed-income programs do help participants catch up on bills and find financial security compared with people who didn’t receive the benefit, though there typically aren’t big improvements immediately. 

“You’re going to start to see some little sparks of that because what happens is as a person has an income floor — and there are plenty of narratives about this now — there’s this feeling of I can breathe, I can feel like I have this space in my mind cleared up so that I can think about the future or I can spend more time with my children,” West said. 

West studied the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, which provided 125 residents in Stockton, California, with $500 for two years. The pandemic happened in the middle of the SEED pilot. 

In the first year, participants said they felt less stress and anxiety as they made economic strides, West said. But during the second year, the researchers found, participants weren’t able to make as many strides because of the economy. 

Still, West said she sees the program as a success because the findings helped debunk myths about cash programs, showing that people did not quit their jobs, nor did they use the money unwisely.

“As I think about all these other experiments that are happening, the thing that I expect to see is what we saw in that first year of SEED whenever we had normative economic and health conditions,” West said of the California program. “And as the country kind of slowly crawls back to that space, I think you’ll be able to see these changes happening in people’s lives as we did in the first year.”

Mary Bogle, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute, said policy-makers typically want to draw a straight line from program participants getting payments to improved economic mobility. But she said the pilots across the country might not be running long enough to show long-term outcomes. 

Bogle was among dozens of researchers and academics who gathered in June for the Basic Income Guarantee Conference. The most significant outcomes for households and communities might not be fully known for decades, she said. 

“We need longitudinal studies to look at the next generations,” Bogle said. “The parents get stabilizing outcomes, and I do think that a lot of the parents are able to get a better foothold in the economy as a result of having some guaranteed income for a while. It allows them to move from stability to more economic mobility. But my hypothesis would be that you are going to see the greatest gains in the children’s lives.” 

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