Opinion: In the Fight for Racial Justice, Our History Demands a Guaranteed Basic Income


America’s history around race and inequality is a painful one and is still being felt today. As a Black woman, I have felt this pain personally; and as an elected official in Illinois, I am committed to fighting back against the remnants of racist policies. At the forefront of our fight for racial justice, we are launching a guaranteed income program in our county to help folks struggling to make ends meet, and I call on my colleagues in the federal government to join me.

From slavery to internment camps to redlining, our Black, brown, and immigrant neighbors have time and time again endured government-sponsored oppression. And despite the “bootstraps” narratives and meritocracy myths imposed on all of us from an early age, these injustices have made it more difficult for Black and brown Americans to achieve financial freedom today.

No matter how you cut it—in terms of household wealth, homeownership, access to credit, the list goes on—available data shows that our Black and brown citizens start their lives with less money and face more barriers to building wealth in the long-term. This is a direct consequence of the policies and actions of government throughout our history, and as government leaders, we have a special duty to right the wrongs of discriminatory policies that have sown seeds of disunity and undermined the great potential of our nation.

A guaranteed income is our opportunity to fulfill that duty.

The results of direct cash programs speak for themselves. With a stable financial foundation, participants in local pilot programs are empowered to take care of their families, pursue education, and find better employment. And because the hierarchies of wealth and inequality have been drawn by racial lines throughout our history, our Black and brown residents have been shown to benefit disproportionately.

With more stability, folks have the freedom to set personal goals, take risks, and even start businesses. Across the board, a guaranteed income leads to better health and educational outcomes for participants and their households.

To put it plainly—it makes people’s lives better.

For our part, Cook County is proud to be leading the way for government in the American guaranteed income movement. With a $42 million initial investment, our Promise Pilot is the largest publicly-funded initiative of its kind in American history, and we aim to show the nation what guaranteed income at scale can achieve.

The name of our pilot was chosen purposefully. The word “promise” reflects an understanding of broken promises of the past, and our intention to right those wrongs for the future. We also know that this program will allow residents to reach their promise, their potential to thrive and live meaningful lives.

Lastly, the program I’m writing about today is a pilot, but we’re not interested in temporary or short-term solutions to the glaring issues of racial and income inequality. Our promise to Cook County residents is to make this program permanent in the years to come. We believe that decades of research justify it and that the results of our program will demand it—just as they have in other guaranteed income pilots across the country.

But in the end, participants in pilot and local programs only represent a fraction of residents who can benefit from a guaranteed income. Over 200,000 Cook County residents applied for our first round of funding, yet we can only serve 3,250 of them with this historic investment. That’s why action from the federal government, a promise to our residents from coast to coast, is necessary to achieve our goal of righting the wrongs of history—of creating a more just and equitable world for all of us.

I call on Congress to follow the lead of local governments across the country. If we want to ensure a stable future for all our citizens, a guaranteed income for everyone who needs it represents the best path forward.

Now it’s our turn to make history.


Toni Preckwinkle is president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners

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