More cities are offering no-strings-attached cash to residents. Here’s what Philly can learn.

More cities are offering no-strings-attached cash to residents. Here’s what Philly can learn.
More cities are offering no-strings-attached cash to residents. Here’s what Philly can learn.

By Layla A. Jones

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Four years after being released from prison, Tydricka Lewis got something special: unrestricted cash.

The mom of three was one of 109 formerly incarcerated people selected to receive a monthly, no-strings-attached $600 payment as part of a local guaranteed basic income initiative in Durham, N.C.

Lewis, 34, bought a new car with the money from the yearlong pilot program, and it helped her commute to the two jobs she worked to support her and her children.

“I am doing more than enough,”

Lewis said of her work ethic. “It’s just that I’m not making enough.”

She is no longer getting the monthly payments. But she is an advocate for guaranteed income, especially for Black Americans.

“We wasn’t given any mules, no land, no acres,” Lewis said of unfulfilled government promises made to African Americans after the end of slavery. “Everything was stripped from us.”

Guaranteed basic income is what it sounds like: giving people money, no strings attached. The concept is ancient, but it took root in recent history during the civil rights movement as a way to combat poverty.

Starting next year, Philly will join the ranks of cities such as Durham using it as a tool to address systemic racism.

Philadelphia’s newest guaranteed income initiative, which will provide money to250 pregnant women, is expected to launch in early 2024. The city has already run free cash experiments in the last few years, for some families in public housing and for those who received government benefits. CityCouncil also floatedthe idea of using guaranteed income to combat poverty in early 2020, before initiatives exploded nationwide during COVID-19.

Programs like Durham’s could be a model as leaders in Philadelphia, the nation’s poorest big city, continue to show interest in guaranteed income.

Can guaranteed income reduce recidivism?

Philadelphia and Durham aren’t the likeliest of peers, but both have a population that is majority people of color, and both face a growing affordability crisis. A far smaller city, Durham has similar housing costs to Philadelphia. The average renter there spends more than $1,500, compared to $1,400 here, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. And both cities have sizable communities of citizens with criminal records.

Whether a local universal income program designed for returning citizens will emerge in Philadelphia remains to be seen. But if any city could benefit from assisting people with records — who face challenges with everything from housing to employment — it’s one where those folks make up nearly a fifth of the population.

Durham’s program for returning citizens was paid for out of a $15 million donation from Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey to a group called Mayors for a Guaranteed Income.

The city was given $500,000 and raised $300,000 more for the program, which gave $600 a month to 109 people for one year. Officials hoped the money wouldhelp decrease recidivism among formerly incarcerated people.

Carl Day, a Philadelphia pastor, said a program like Durham’s could be good here. Heruns Beat the Block, a privately funded organization that works withyoung men who have been involved in the justice system or who are at risk and “literally pays these men to kind of get their whole lives back on track,” Day said.

“Some people look at it like they’re funding criminals,”

said Day, “but the truth of the matter is, we’re gonna acknowledge systemic racism. We’re gonna acknowledge how intentional these systems have been to really set people back and keep people behind.”

Why is Philly experimenting with guaranteed income?

In early March 2020, PhiladelphiaCity Council announced an ambitious plan to lift 100,000 people out of poverty by 2024. Itincluded exploring the feasibility of unconditional cash forPhiladelphia residents, driven by the example of Stockton, Calif., which in 2019 became the first U.S. city to experiment with universal basic income.

Those efforts stalled amid the pandemic concerns. But COVID also ignited a new momentum behind guaranteed income locally.

In 2021, people returning home from jail were eligible for one-time, $500 payments from the city.

One of Philadelphia’s first guaranteed income programs launched in July 2022. The program gave an average of about $890 a month to 300families on public housing wait lists and was doled out through the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Also in 2022, the city committed to giving $500 a month to up to 60 people who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

The program expected to launch next year will be funded by philanthropic dollars. Pregnant people living in Cobbs Creek, Strawberry Mansion, and Nicetown-Tioga are eligible to receive monthly $1,000 stipends for 18 months. Those neighborhoods have the highest rates of very low birth weight, a proxy for premature birth. The communities are also mostly Black.

Lydia Seymour, a coordinator for the Community Action Network, the organization running the Philly Joy Bank program, saidher daughter was born weighing 1 pound 8 ounces. A married mother of two, Seymour said money is an added stress for parents.

“Being able to have that eliminated a little bit by having a little extra cushion, as far as finances, is a game changer,” she said.

Philly’s initiative took some notes from a government-sponsored program for parents in Manitoba, Canada. Stacey Kallem, a physician and the director of the maternal and family health division at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, called the results of that program “astounding.”

“I can’t really tell you other interventions that I know of that will have had such a large impact on reducing rates of prematurity and low birth weight,” she said.

Between 2020 and 2022, U.S. cities launched nearly 50 guaranteed income experiments. The pilots are rigorously studied, and include control groups thatdon’t receive the funds.

Thanks in part to research, such as at Penn’s Center for Guaranteed Income Research, growing evidence supports the idea that universal income works.

It improves people’s financial well-being, helps them escape poverty and thestress related to it, increases job opportunities, and helps people be better parents. But political will is also key to implementing policies.

“To have the idea doesn’t take any political will,” said former Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. “To make it happen takes political will because you got to raise the money, you got to find the right organization, you got to be able to stick with it, and you got to convince people that it’s a really good thing to do.”

How are cities funding guaranteed income programs?

Durham struggled to get its pilot program off the ground.

Durham city officials had to reissue the request for proposals because no nonprofit wanted to touch its scope and size. Schewel had to personally convince eventual program runner Syretta Hill of StepUp Durham to administer the Excel program.

“The first iteration of the RFP didn’t have any funds coming to us,” Hill said, “so we were basically asked to do this work for free.”

The group eventually was allocated $110,000 reimbursable dollars to execute the program, but StepUp board’s initial rejection of the proposal reveals the complexities of operating one-off guaranteed income experiments.

No city has yet figured out how to pay for a widespread guaranteed income program that doesn’t rely on private philanthropy.

Philly Joy Bank has already received $1.6 million from the William Penn Foundation, $1.5 million from Spring Point Partners, and $500,000 from the Barra Foundation. It aims to raise a total of $6 million.

“I think one of the issues is: How do you fund something like this long-term?” said Schewel, who was a member of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. “It’s expensive.”

Paying all Philadelphians in poverty, about 23% of the population, $10,000 per year inguaranteed income would cost about $3.5 billion, or more than half of the city’s budget.

Schewel said ideally, guaranteed income could be paid for by progressive taxes on the rich.

ButPennsylvania lawprohibits Philadelphia from having a higher wage tax for the wealthy. The city’s taxes must remain uniform for all residents.

“So what we want,” said Schewel, “is that the federal government will provide guaranteed income.”

How have people spent guaranteed income?

Preliminary data show participants in Durham’s program spent nearly half the money on “retail services,” including purchases from big box and wholesale stores, subscriptions, andprofessional, repair, and maintenance services.

The second largest spending category was food, followed by transportation.

Penn researchers tracked the spending of guaranteed income recipients and incentivized the control group to continue participating in the program with things like gift cards.

Lewis, of Durham, quit her second job around the same time her monthly $600 stipend dried up earlier this year. With less money, but a newfound sense of stability, Lewis has chosen to believe things will fall together.

“Working is not an issue for me,” Lewis said. “The thing is, I don’t believe that human beings are supposed to work 100 hours a week, be productive parents … fulfill your dreams, serve your community, and just be a great person.

“And so that’s the picture I’ve been trying to paint to the government.”

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