By Elly Fishman
See original post here.
Zinida Moore sits on her plush brown couch on a Tuesday afternoon in November. The sounds of the busy Englewood thoroughfare outside seep into her two-bedroom apartment. She keeps her phone next to her, and it dings regularly. Most people in her life know that these early-afternoon hours are the best time to reach her. It’s the only time of the day when she is both awake and not working.
Moore, 41 at the time, leans back into the couch. She’s exhausted, but that’s nothing new. For much of the past two decades, she has held more than one job at a time. Lately she’s been working at both the Walmart in Chatham and a nearby Dollar Tree. At Walmart, Moore stocks shelves and checks inventory from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. From there, she takes an $8 Uber to the Dollar Tree, where she opens the store at 7:30 a.m. and works until 1:30 p.m. “I get tired, but then I think about my kids,” says Moore, who has three children at home. “They’re my motivation.”
A flat-screen television is encircled by family photographs. In one, Moore lies on a bed surrounded by her kids, their heads forming a triangle around her. A dual frame features a photo of the high school graduation of her oldest child, Reggie, 23, and a school picture of her 16-year-old daughter, Ziniya. The windowsill is covered with trophies that celebrate Ziniya’s cheerleading, Reggie’s football days, and the creative writing of her youngest, Ryan, who is 11.
Working multiple jobs is how Moore has long managed to cobble together enough income to supply her kids with basic necessities at home and for school. And then there’s the not-strictly-necessary stuff — trendy clothes, trips to the movies, money for the mall — that she wants them to have. It all adds up. Her financial stability has always been precarious, and she worries that one emergency could quickly spiral her into even deeper debt.
Moore’s phone dings. It’s Ziniya. She needs a new uniform for her cheer squad. Her text breaks down the cost of each piece: $45 for an oversize hair bow, $25 for a collar, $110 for shoes, $125 for the backpack. Then there’s the rest of the uniform. All told, it will run $630.
In previous years, Moore might have sent out a text to family and friends seeking donations for the uniform. She might have asked the school if she could pay in installments. But this year, for the first time, she can cover it all herself. That’s because she has an extra $500 a month coming in — not from a third job or a side hustle but from the City of Chicago, which gives her the money to spend or save as she chooses.
It’s part of an audacious new philosophy of government aid, an experiment of sorts that seeks to find out whether infusions of no-strings-attached cash can begin to break the cycle of poverty. “I was a kid who couldn’t get the stuff I wanted right away,” Moore says. “It makes me feel some type of way to be able to do that for my kids.” She tells Ziniya to order the uniform.
In May 2022, Moore was among the 5,000 city residents selected to participate in the Chicago Resilient Communities Pilot, one of the largest guaranteed income programs in the United States. (Unlike universal basic income, a guaranteed income program like Chicago’s benefits a specific group rather than the general population.) Run by the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, Resilient Communities was based on a simple yet bold idea: to give selected Chicago residents unconditional monthly cash assistance for one year.
Announced in 2021, Chicago’s $31.5 million guaranteed income program was carved out of the $1.9 trillion in federal stimulus money disbursed nationwide through the American Rescue Plan Act to address the economic distress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The city’s pilot arrived three years after former alderperson Ameya Pawar created the Resilient Families Task Force to explore the possibility. By the time Alderperson Gilbert Villegas brought a similar resolution to the City Council in March 2021, the idea had started to gain traction around the country — and, crucially, the city had federal dollars to fund it.
Moore heard about the program through a Facebook group she checks regularly for information on public benefits. At first, she thought the program was a scam — after all, it promised free money. But the website looked official, so Moore applied, joining more than 175,000 Chicagoans who sought the tax-free $500 per month.
Working multiple jobs is how Moore has long managed to cobble together enough income to supply her kids with basic necessities at home and for school. Her financial stability has always been precarious, and she worries that one emergency could quickly spiral her into even deeper debt.
To be eligible, applicants had to report a household income no more than 250 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that meant under $70,000. (Between her two jobs, Moore’s income in 2022 hovered around $55,000.) Recipients were selected at random by a computer, but the system was designed to prioritize low-income applicants. According to data published by the University of Chicago’s Inclusive Economy Lab, which partnered with the city to study the impact of the program, 72 percent of the recipients were women. Among them, 70 percent identified as Black and nearly 60 percent had children.
Chicago’s program follows years of advocacy across the country by activists and even some politicians, perhaps most prominently by 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who made UBI the centerpiece of his candidacy. The idea has gained popularity among tech moguls — notably, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman — who argue that UBI would help people who lose their jobs to artificial-intelligence-spurred automation. But guaranteed income programs are hardly a new phenomenon: Thomas Paine, for one, advocated annual-lump sum payments to every American in the late 18th century. Economist and free-market champion Milton Friedman liked the idea, too.
Recently, a more limited approach — cash payments to some but not all — has gained momentum. Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton, California, pioneered a program in 2019 that provided 125 residents with $500 monthly payouts over two years. And the more than 100 municipal leaders around the country who form the group Mayors for a Guaranteed Income are incubating the idea in their towns and cities. The Chicago pilot, in combination with the Cook County Promise Guaranteed Income Pilot, which provides $500 a month to 3,250 Cook County residents, stands among the largest efforts yet.
A big factor behind the local push was the inequities highlighted by the pandemic. “We saw that people were suffering,” says Brandie Knazze, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, who helped shape the pilot. “A lot of times we make poor people prove that they’re poor. We make them go through hoops. We knew we didn’t have time. Direct cash allows the individual to be able to determine what they need and chart their own path.”
While no one contends that giving $500 a month to a few thousand residents will rectify Chicago’s entrenched problems of poverty and community disinvestment, backers argue that it could begin to help residents whose lack of financial stability makes them vulnerable to poor health and shortened lifespans. “People are eager to find new government interventions that get at the root of these systemic problems,” says Adrian Talbott, associate dean at the University of Chicago’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice and part of the group analyzing the pilot program’s results.
What’s unclear is whether unrestricted cash payments are the best way to do that — and whether guaranteed income programs are financially workable. “That’s what we are trying to understand,” Talbott says. “What we will see over time is whether programs like this will make a difference and whether they can be sustained. It’s an open question.”
Christmas has long been Moore’s favorite holiday. On this December morning, she arrives at Old Navy in the South Loop, off Roosevelt Road, a few minutes before it opens. She finished her Walmart overnight shift a couple of hours earlier and kept herself from falling asleep. “I just have to keep moving and I’m good,” she says with a gentle laugh. She claims she can easily stay awake for 48 hours straight.
Moore, whose stories often unfurl circuitously, punctuated with enthusiastic asides, freestyles about her countless mornings spent at this Old Navy. “It’s therapeutic for me,” she says, pulling open the store’s glass door. “It’s like my only time for myself. I find it relaxing.” But also invigorating because she loves hunting for a good deal. “My kids think I have a shopping problem.” Moore homes in on pajama sets for her children: The boys will get pants with Santa faces and shirts that read “Dear Santa I’ve Been Good.” For Moore and her daughter, it’s plaid boxers with matching tops that say “Believe.”
By the time Christmas arrives, Moore has transformed her living room into her twinkling vision of holiday cheer. Her new tree, the silver tinsel type, sparkles under a string of lights. “I’ve always wanted a tree like the ones in the movies,” Moore says, smiling. “We finally got to have one this year.” The pajama sets join the other gifts stacked under the tree.
Christmas dinner features a feast of greens, cornbread, and macaroni and cheese made with Gouda and evaporated milk. Moore serves a pot roast, which she simmered in Mexican seasoning in her slow cooker for 12 hours. She usually buys each kid three gifts: something they want, something they need, and something educational. But this year, each gets a small tower of presents. Moore got a few for herself, too. “It’s the best Christmas we’ve ever had,” she says. “I was able to do a little bit more. It means something to me, and it means something to them.”
The day unfolds slowly, familiar Christmas aromas filling the air. Moore stages several photo shoots with her children and “grandson” — that is, Reggie’s dog, Vision, who models his own holiday onesie. As the day shifts to night, Moore’s children eat, text, sleep, and eat some more. No one, not even the dog, changes out of their new pajamas.
Moore can pinpoint the moment her life took a sharp, reorienting turn. She grew up in Roseland, the youngest of four siblings. One day when Moore was 6, her mother threatened to have Moore’s 8-year-old brother, who was roughhousing with a cousin, placed into state custody. “She had been drinking,” recalls Moore, “and when she saw the number for DCFS pop on the screen in a commercial, she said she was gonna call.”
The details are fuzzy for Moore, but her older sister, Talana Moore, who was 10 at the time, remembers the event vividly. Talana, who often took care of her younger siblings, did what she could to prevent the call. “I kept taking the phone out of the wall,” she recalls. “I kept doing it over and over again, but I must have fallen asleep, because when we woke up in the morning, there were so many people there. So many.” She estimates 10 in all: social workers, police officers, emergency medics who’d arrived in an ambulance. They were there to move all four children into foster homes.
Moore ended up in a home with her other sister. Talana and her brother were placed with another family. A year later, Moore returned to her mother. Talana, however, never went back.
About eight years after that, when Moore was 15, she again found herself in front of a social worker. This time, her mother, who Moore says was still drinking heavily, called the police to ask that they take her daughter away. “I had always heard from my mother that she didn’t want me,” Moore says, “and I guess she just decided this was the moment she was done.”
The officers who arrived at the house said they could not take a minor into custody over a familial dispute and advised Moore’s mother to call the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. So that’s what she did. “I remember it was raining,” says Moore. “And I had to take the bus downtown to an office where there was a man waiting for me. When he saw me, he just shook his head.”
He was a social worker tasked with placing Moore in foster care, but he couldn’t find a home for her. “No one wanted a 15-year-old teenager,” says Moore. She was sent to Maryville Academy, a Catholic group home in Des Plaines. Some girls were there because they had been orphaned. Others had been kicked out of their homes for bad behavior. “Nobody was there because their mom just didn’t want them,” Moore recalls. “That was only me.”
When Moore turned 18, she moved into her own apartment in Englewood. She was ready to start her life as an adult. “That was kind of the whole point at Maryville — to teach you how to be independent,” says Moore. Less than a year later, she gave birth to Reggie. Life as a young mother was an adjustment. “I’ve always been mature,” she says, “but being a parent means you gotta grow up fast.”
After two years caring for Reggie full-time, Moore took a job at a movie theater. When Ziniya was born four years later, Moore shifted to working overnight at Walmart and as a cashier at Kmart during the day. When Ryan was born five years after that, Moore added a third job: working in home care. (Moore’s longtime partner, Reggie Sr., is father to both Reggie and Ziniya. He lived with the family on and off until he and Moore split for good in 2016. They remain amicable coparents to the three siblings, including Ryan, whose father was shot and killed in 2021.)
Whenever she felt tired, which was often, she reminded herself of the promise she made the day her elder son was born: “I told myself that I will never be like my mom was to me. Parenting isn’t something you get to turn off. I chose to be a parent, so I promised to always put my kids first.”
It’s late February, eight months and eight checks into the Resilient Communities Pilot, and a Facebook post catches Moore’s attention. One of her high school friends who is an accountant has an offer. “Feeling lovely on this good Saturday! I think I’ll help four people that’s in need with their personal or business credit starting March 1.” Moore has long wanted to improve her credit score, so she applies for the free offer and is selected. (The city offered participants in the pilot help with financial planning and credit counseling, but Moore chose to work with her friend.)
Over the years, Moore has accrued a handful of outstanding bills, totaling close to $1,000. Every month she pays $875 in rent, and the gas averages nearly $200. Internet and electricity come to around $150. Groceries run about $500. Moore often pays her bills late, incurring fees. That, along with the outstanding bills, has pushed her credit score down to 524.
The process of improving her score takes nearly two months. It begins with a survey of the creditors who dinged her for unpaid bills. Several of the charges, Moore told the accountant, were sent to her in error and should have gone to the people who moved into her old apartments. The accountant has her gather documentation of her residential history and also helps clear up the other bills.
Next, Moore decides to settle her two largest bills — $300 for electricity and nearly $600 for gas. She’s been on yearlong payment plans, but by April, thanks to the cash from the city, she has paid off both balances early — and put down three months’ rent up front, simply because she can.
Small successes like these, says University of Chicago economist Damon Jones, who served on the Chicago Resilient Families Task Force, can put people in a better position to invest in long-term goals. “[Guaranteed income] is not going to lift you out of poverty per se,” he says. “But it’s going to give you some more security and stability and reduce uncertainty. And that buffer can help someone make a change that they’ve been meaning to make.”
The $6,000 Moore will receive from the Resilient Communities Pilot won’t, on its own, enable Moore to buy a house, for instance. But repairing her credit has allowed her to entertain the idea as a real possibility. By early May, her credit score has risen to 697 — more than 70 points above the minimum to qualify for a mortgage, which has long felt out of reach.
“The goal was to give people flexibility and choice in how to improve the situation that they are in,” says Knazze, the DFSS commissioner. “People don’t want a handout. They just want a little bit of lift and a little bit of breathing room.”
Over time, that breathing room can turn into substantial, sustained change. That’s the general conclusion of the Guaranteed Income Pilots Dashboard, a data collection administered by the Stanford Basic Income Lab, the Center for Guaranteed Income Research, and Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. The research, which includes statistics gleaned from more than 7,500 participants in various pilots across several cities, shows that cash assistance can make it easier for people to find jobs and secure childcare and can improve their physical and mental health. (Similarly, a 2018 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed a Canadian program and found a nearly 10 percent decrease in hospitalizations among those who received recurring payments.)
Still, critics question whether the merits of such programs justify their costs. Legal scholar Richard Epstein, a libertarian legal scholar at the University of Chicago, is a strident opponent of guaranteed income programs. He has argued that Chicago, a city already deeply in debt, would not be able to support the long-term expense of Resilient Communities without COVID relief money. Some say the money would be better invested in bolstering existing programs that target those most in need of support, such as disabled people and single mothers. And conservative critics contend that cash assistance creates disincentives to work, echoing an argument made for decades by politicians who have pushed to add job requirements to public benefits like Medicaid.
The $6,000 Moore will receive from the Resilient Communities Pilot won’t, on its own, enable her to buy a house, for instance. But repairing her credit has allowed her to entertain the idea as a real possibility.
Not all criticism comes from the right. There are concerns that guaranteed income programs would slow or kill other progressive initiatives. Some members of the Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus, for example, pushed back against Resilient Communities, saying that the money should instead fund reparations for Black Chicagoans. “Until we deal with the issue of reparations in the city of Chicago, there’s no way in hell we can support direct payments to anybody other than the American descendants of slaves,” Alderperson Jason Ervin said on March 24, 2021, the day that a nonbinding resolution calling for the pilot was put to a vote in the City Council.
While the pilot’s $31.5 million price tag is hardly nothing, it’s a small fraction of Chicago’s $16.7 billion total annual budget. Extending or expanding Resilient Communities would require a significantly larger financial commitment. That’s if it’s worth extending in the first place. How will we know if the pilot was a success? Jones, the U. of C. economist, argues that’s the wrong question to ask: “The broader social value of a pilot comes from learning new information about what people need. What do people prioritize once they get a little more flexibility and choice? What do they take care of first?” Those answers, Jones says, can lead to broader conversations about more permanent and scalable policies.
The extra money coming in every month might encourage someone in Moore’s situation, for example, to reduce hours at back-to-back full-time jobs. Critics would call that a work disincentive, but cutting back on hours could also significantly improve a participant’s health and quality of life. “We have a very paternalistic view about what choices people should make when they have more options,” Jones says. “If people decide to work less, there are likely important reasons for that. Maybe it’s for health reasons or because of expensive childcare. Maybe they’re searching for a new job or investing in their education. It’s important to be clear what policymakers are implicitly saying when they say [working less] is a bad outcome.”
When Moore walks into her second-floor apartment on a Monday afternoon in June, she takes a deliberate breath. “It’s hot,” she says to her sister Talana, who trails behind her. The two have spent the past five days together in Gary, Indiana, where Talana lives. Moore hasn’t stayed with her sister for that long in years; between two jobs, it had been tough finding the time. They spent the weekend reminiscing and laughing. They slept in the same bed and whispered to each other until the early-morning hours.
Moore and her sister even visited their mother. Moore reached out to her a few years ago. They occasionally call and text nowadays. They are friendly, but not exactly close. “I just decided to give it one more shot,” Moore says. “You only get one mother, so no matter your differences, you just try to make it work. I can’t change what happened, and I can’t get back the lost years, but we should have some type of relationship.”
It’s been a rough couple of months for Moore. In April, she learned that the Walmart in Chatham, where she’d worked for the past two years, would close. (In total, she’d worked for the chain, at various locations in the city, for nearly a decade, including during the pandemic.) The news was a shock — especially since she’d quit her job at Dollar Tree when the store changed her shift to the afternoon, preventing her from seeing her kids after school. “I worked so hard to get close to home,” says Moore. “I loved my job. I love dealing with people, and I got to do that in my community.”
Moore was given the option to move to a Walmart location in either southwest suburban Evergreen Park or west suburban Cicero, but she decided the commute would be too hard. She took the severance package of close to $7,000. Walmart also offered to pay Moore her salary through mid-August, and Reggie still has his job at Jewel. The last couple of $500 deposits from the Resilient Communities program would provide an additional cushion.
In July, more than a month after Moore gets her last deposit from the pilot, a former Walmart coworker tells her about a janitorial company that’s often hiring. Moore applies online, and the next day she’s offered a job. On her first day, she is stationed at a health clinic in Englewood. The hours are decent and the pay adequate. But after one week, her manager fails to put her on the schedule again.
The instability worries Moore. Without a job, she has no health care and, now that the Resilient Communities Pilot has ended, no regular money coming in. She plans to apply for unemployment and enroll in Medicaid if she needs to. In total, that patchwork system of government support will surely amount to more than $500 a month, but it also comes with cumbersome hurdles. “They send you through lots of loops and hoops,” Moore says with a sigh.
While there are no concrete plans to extend the Resilient Communities program, Chicago’s new mayor, Brandon Johnson, has said he wants to. But it’s not clear how the city would fund it — or whether there’s the political will to make it permanent. (As for the Cook County program, board president Toni Preckwinkle says she’s committed to keeping it going and plans to use sales tax on cannabis to pay for it. “States have always been incubators of innovative ideas on how to address our challenges,” Preckwinkle says.)
For her part, Moore hopes the city will find a way to extend the pilot. “It helped me knock out things I wanted to do and needed to do.” Looking around her apartment, she points to several items she bought with the money: new kitchen chairs, a bed frame, that cheerleading backpack. Her stack of bills is shorter, and her kids’ pile of new video games is taller. “But nothing lasts forever,” she says, “whether it’s a job, unemployment, or the Resilient program. It was a very good experience, but I’m always trying to stay ahead and stay afloat.”
The bills won’t stop coming. Rent is going up. Food costs, too. A new school year means a new cheer uniform. Ziniya is starting to think about college, and she’d like to go somewhere warm and far away. She also wants a car.
It would seem that Moore could use that Resilient Communities cash now more than a year ago, but she doesn’t see it that way: “It wouldn’t feel any different. Whether you’re working two jobs or unemployed, everybody still needs a little help somewhere. It would still be a sense of relief.”
Over the past year, that relief came in many forms. It helped Moore settle long-standing debts. But it also affected her life in quieter ways, moments harder to quantify. Like the week with her sister. Or the elation of her children on Christmas morning. Even the extra time and money she spent at the hair salon getting intricate braids to mark the start of spring. Those pauses are what Moore cherishes most. They are what she’ll hold on to long after the experiment’s end.