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Eat your heart out, MrBeast.
Mark Donovan doesn’t know where he got the idea to start handing out $1,000 to people in need, only that he was doing it before it became cool.
“I love the immediacy of it,” he says. “I love the impact that it could have directly.”
Back in 2020, the idea of universal basic income was popularized by the campaign of presidential candidate Andrew Yang — an entrepreneur like Donovan, who co-founded a women’s sweater brand. But at that point, the Denver Basic Income leader was already handing out grants worth $1,000 to individuals impacted by COVID.
To him, doling out $1,000 “felt like, at that moment, the most immediate step that I could take to make a difference in people’s lives,” he tells Westword — especially during the pandemic.
“COVID was hitting, people had lost their sources of income, their stability, their housing, and meanwhile, the net worth of the people at the top was surging,” Donovan recalls. “I was looking for action. I was looking for immediate impact in any way I could.”
In 2021, he founded the Denver Basic Income Project — the first major effort in the U.S. to test out a basic income — specifically for people who are homeless. He seeded the project in 2021 with $500,000 in gains from early investments in Tesla and has since given out more than $5 million in direct cash payments to nearly 900 people.
Donovan was inspired by the success of the New Leaf Project in Vancouver, which started distributing $7,500 in cash payments in 2018 to people who had recently started experiencing homelessness. Similarly, he highlights the effectiveness of programs like the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, or SEED, which gave out $500 cash payments in California, and the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which handed out $1,000 a month to low-income Black mothers in Jackson, Mississippi.
“Everybody is finding the same thing,” Donovan says. “We’re not surprised by the results. If you’re in this space, you understand that most people will use the money for basic needs.”
Almost a year has passed since the Denver Basic Income Project began its efforts to hand out monthly payments of as much as $1,000 to 820 people. This was ultimately done as a way of testing how to make a basic, job-free income work.
Donovan ran two pilot phases of the project, in August 2021 and July 2022. The program was able to embark on a year-long effort after being awarded $2 million by the Denver City Council in September 2022. Participants were selected from homeless and community service organizations such as the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Servicios de la Raza and the Gathering Place, and were separated into three groups.
The first group pocketed $1,000 a month for twelve months (lasting through this coming November). The second group received $6,500 the first month and $500 for the next eleven months. The last group only got $50 a month for twelve months because they’re a comparison group.
When DU researchers interviewed 24 participants — eight from each group — three months into the project, they found promising results: According to their study released in July, the project was helping people meet basic needs, such as food, child care and paying down debts.
One of the participants told researchers, “I have gotten into some housing, and it’s helped me a lot with doing that to help me pay off a lot of my debt.” Another participant from the $50-a-month group said, “It helps me put food on the table when I don’t have any money or I run out of my food stamps.”
In response, Donovan says, “I’m extremely pleased with where we are. This income floor creates stability, an accelerated path toward safety, housing, work.” The study was validating, he adds, noting, “It proves our theory of change is right.”
The $50 group surprised Donovan. Although participants are getting $600 out of the year-long project compared to $12,000 the other two groups are receiving, they’re “part of the program and are engaging in services, and maybe just have hope because of the way we’re approaching the community,” he says.
Starting up the Basic Income Project cost about $9 million that first year, according to Donovan, but he expects that it would cost less to do it in 2024. The initial cost was for “organizing from 2021 to the beginning,” he explains. “It was a startup. We had to build everything from scratch.”
Keeping things going will settle a lingering question about what the Denver Basic Income Project could look like in the long term. “If I had the money to do it myself, I would just do it, but I don’t have that kind of wealth,” Donovan says. “We don’t know what happens when you sustain an income floor for a community of people who are experiencing homelessness.”
As the project leader, Donovan also looks forward to seeing other places try their own basic income initiative.
A few years ago, he had hoped to take his program to 200 other cities in the span of a few years, but many places have already started attempting similar projects. Cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco have all tried out basic income programs, as have many large counties throughout the U.S.
The City of Boulder just started taking applications for its Guaranteed Income Pilot Project, which will give $500 a month to 200 low-income families for two years.
Donovan is hoping to gain support with a public rally on Friday, September 22, at the State Capitol to raise awareness for Denver’s program and basic income as a movement in general. Advocates for the idea, including Denver City Councilwoman Shontel Lewis and Donovan, are scheduled to speak.
“We’re seeing it create hope,” Donovan concludes. “We’re seeing that people that maybe were disconnected and somewhat hopeless before are seeing a brighter future, the possibility of a brighter future, and that is a really powerful foundation.”