New $42M guaranteed basic income program is using innovative tech to distribute funds

By: Chase DiBenedetto

As guaranteed income programs continue to expand and benefit thousands of families around the country, Illinois’ Cook County unveiled the largest one yet: A $42 million promise for thousands of Chicago-area families.

The substantially-endowed Cook County Promise Guaranteed Income Pilot will serve 3,250 low-income families, each receiving $500 monthly cash payments for 24 months. It’s similar to many other city-based free money programs, which range anywhere from $200 to $2,000 a month for thousands of households, that offer a localized glimpse into what could be accomplished with Universal Basic Income (UBI). Studies of direct cash payments and universal income have provided ample evidence that such aid promotes both financial and social prosperity among lower-income communities, and can provide needed assistance to portions of the population that often go untouched by federal relief. Recent U.S. Census data has also shown that general direct aid in the form of straight-to-individual payouts helped reduce poverty overall.

Guaranteed income programs offer a similar type of long-term cash payments as UBI — a standardized financial safety net with few to no conditions attached — but for a select group of city residents. They’re a great way to prove the aid’s efficacy.

“With a $42 million investment, this two-year pilot is the largest publicly funded guaranteed income initiative in American history and will provide thousands of our residents with a stable economic foundation — many for the first time in their lives,” said Cook County Board of Commissioners president Toni Preckwinkle.

The program is in partnership with global NGO GiveDirectly, which will oversee the program’s payment administration, and technology company AidKit, which will help build and host applications and payment processing tools for participants.

“The core of it is really wanting to empower people with choice, dignity, and opportunity,” said AidKit CEO and co-founder Katrina Van Gasse. “Direct cash assistance is one of the most direct ways to do that.”

AidKit’s payment technology is uniquely accessible to a broad range of prospective recipients, and was intentionally designed to help make the logistic process of direct cash assistance more efficient. The organization was originally founded after seeing the success of tech built and installed to support the Left Behind Workers Fund, a pandemic relief program for undocumented workers in Colorado. The company began to scale its services to aid more than a dozen emerging direct cash and guaranteed income programs, starting initially with Atlanta, Georgia’s In Her Hands income pilot.

“Our highest goal at AidKit is to leverage technology to improve people’s lives. Cook County Promise represents an unprecedented opportunity to do that at scale,” wrote Van Gasse in the program’s press release. The organization has become a go-to resource for similar programs around the country, helping to distribute $50 million dollars to more than 34,000 people in various test programs like Cook County Promise.

“We created a tool that effectively and efficiently gets direct cash assistance out to people who need it most, in a dignified way. And it’s really focused on ensuring we’re reaching the most vulnerable populations that are typically excluded,” Van Gasse explained. “How do we make sure this is accessible for them?”

What makes AidKit’s tech so successful is its ease — the sign-up process for recipients is designed for mobile device compatibility and fully completed in under 30 minutes. Applicants don’t need their own computers or laptops, and the simplicity benefits those working to assist these populations, as well. Required documents can be submitted on the applicant’s time, with both in-person and online support if needed, and uploaded simply by taking a photograph.

The application forms (and all follow-up communications) are also multilingual, available via text-to-voice technology, and compatible with screen readers. They can be accessed by people with a range of verbal and literacy skills, as well as people with disabilities. The process is also easy for those who are unbanked, a group which makes up approximately five percent of the population, according to AidKit. The application allows for direct cash payments via bank transfer as well as prepaid debit card or virtual card, which can be picked up by or delivered to recipients.

It’s important that options like these exist for those involved. “Some programs are designed in a way where it can feel like such a black hole for people. Applicants are just swimming in this black hole, and they have no idea what’s happening next, what they’re supposed to do, and what their status is,” Van Gasse said. “The way we’ve designed AidKit is to make it really just a supportive and informed experience.”

Cook County Promise isn’t the first, and probably won’t be the last, guaranteed income program born and fostered in the Chicago area. Chicago City Alderman Gilbert Villega originally announced a proposed guaranteed income program in April 2021, which boasted a $30 million endowment for 5,000 families and was tested that June. The Resilient Communities program began issuing monthly payments this past July, and will continue to supplement the incomes of 5,000 families with a year of $500 monthly payments.

The program is a substantial, and history-making, addition to these direct cash efforts. AidKit’s simple-to-use technology is helping to prove that such initiatives are scalable, and that they’re efficient social interventions — as long as they have the appropriate political, financial, and technological support.

Applications for the Cook Country Promise pilot will go live on Oct. 6. City residents can sign up to receive updates and information on how to apply.

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