By: Bob Seidenberg
As many as 165 residents across a wide range of ages could be in line to receive a guaranteed income of $500 a month under a one-year pilot program that received the backing of the Evanston City Council on Aug. 9.
Council Members approved the program, which is a combined venture between the City and Northwestern University.
The University through its NU Good Neighbor Racial Equity Fund is contributing $300,000 and the City is chipping in $700,000 – tapping federal COVID Recovery funds to support the program.
Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward Council Member, and Dave Davis, Northwestern’s Executive Director of Neighborhoods and Community Relations, worked out the details of the program after the University and its President, Morton Schapiro, announced in March the University would be giving a $1 million allocation to the Northwestern Good Neighbor Racial Equity Fund.
The purpose of the fund is to support projects and programs that uplift Evanston’s most marginalized community members by dismantling systemic barriers, officials said.
Officials will pull applicants from “three buckets” of people in the community, Fleming told Council Members, “understanding we could not serve everyone in Evanston, trying to pick folks who needed the most going into the pandemic, and therefore or still needed it coming out of the pandemic.”
Fleming said the $500-a-month figure is based on research she and Davis did into other programs “and seems to be the amount of money that allows people to make substantial changes in their life and economic mobility. And that money needed to be unrestricted as per guaranteed income programs and also be over a 12-month period.”
The program aims to provide randomly selected residents with $500 monthly payments over 12 months, said City Manager Erika Storlie in a memo, providing additional details.
Payments will be made to an equal number of residents from each of the following three categories: disengaged youths (ages 18-24), senior citizens (over 62) and undocumented residents, she said.
“Because this is a pilot program, any additional funding is recommended to renew the program for a second year if the program is successful,” she noted.
Participating in the meeting via Zoom, Davis thanked officials, singling out Storlie for coming up with the idea. “Early on we hit a couple of roadblocks in determining what were the best programs and projects to fund. She suggested this. It’s not only a great solution but the right thing to do.”
He stressed, “This is not a finished product by any means, but I think we’re getting closer to something that I feel would be incredibly meaningful to some of the most vulnerable folks in Evanston.
“We understand this pandemic has exacerbated the magnitude of the needs in this community, specifically populations that are already struggling, to provide for their basic needs. Although this program alone will not solve all the problems we face in Evanston, I am confident this program will bolster Evanston’s support system for this very vulnerable population.”
Council Member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, asked Davis whether the University planned to measure the impact of the first-time program.
Davis said an important aspect of the program from the University’s side “is to make sure that we have a research component or an evaluation piece to the program.”
He said the University is still working to find the right person “to help us, not only design the program fully, but also to do the evaluation to make sure the payments are going to the right population, that we’re assessing the need.
“As we continue, hopefully into the future with this program,” he said, “there will also be concern that every dollar going into the program is maximized.”
He said data from other cities around the country that have implemented guaranteed basic income programs suggest such programs can be “a really effective way to reach people in need.
“So the University is really committed to make sure this is a program that works well,” he told Council Members.
The City originally was going to contribute $300,000 toward the program. On an amendment by Ald. Fleming at the Aug. 9 meeting, the amount was hiked to $700,000.
She noted that Evanston would become the first municipality in Illinois approving such a program and said there is lots of interest nationwide from private funders who have been helping cities get such programs off the ground.
“So we want to position this to be a viable pilot,” she said.
The City’s $700,000 combined with Northwestern’s $300,000 contribution brings the program funding to $1 million, she said, allowing the City to help 165 individuals, compared to about 90 residents under the lower amount.
Question on ARPA funds
The City’s contribution is one of the first commitments of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, a $43 million amount, for which many local groups are competing.
Council Member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, said he is supportive of the guaranteed income program, but sought more details on use of ARPA funds.
“I just want to know officially: Are we kicking ARPA off? Because I have some things I would like to move forward as well,” he said.
“We haven’t had a discussion about process,” he said. “We don’t have fully defined criteria. We don’t even know how much will be in what pot of money, what initiatives and projects Council will bring in the same manner.”
Mayor Daniel Biss acknowledged Burns’s concern. “Everyone sort of wants to have a comprehensive strategy in place before spending a single dime,” he said.
“I think here the issue is this program was initiated because of the Good Neighbor Fund; there’s been a desire to find matching funds, and a commitment from the City to find matching funds. There’s just not another source of income available to do that.” He agreed with Burns that a vote for this case essentially opened the way for other Council members to make suggestions for ARPA fund use in other areas.
Similarly, Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, asked where the City would find money for the program in future years when ARPA funds may not be available.
Fleming acknowledged she advocated for the ARPA money. “I was happy to have money from wherever we had to have it “ she said. She said the $300,000 contribution the City was considering initially would not result “in anything we could call a pilot,” with the lower number of people it would help.
A more fully funded program improves the prospect the City could find private funding support after the first year of the program, she suggested.
Responded Nieuwsma, “So it does impose kind of a moral obligation on us to find funds somewhere in the future.”
“If we would like to continue the program,” said Fleming.
Evanston, Illinois is another city that is funding a Guaranteed Income program for its more vulnerable citizens with funds from city budgets. That is a big step forward for UBI.