Who is getting $500/month in Rochester’s guaranteed income program? Key facts released

Who is getting $500/month in Rochester's guaranteed income program? Key facts released
Who is getting $500/month in Rochester's guaranteed income program? Key facts released

By Gino Fanelli

See original post here.

Evans Buntley’s story is a familiar one for many Rochester renters.

He needed to find a new place, but the $1,200 rent for a modest two-story house on Avenue C was more than double what he was paying while living with a cousin. It was a major life shift — but necessary, Buntley said, as his aging cousin needed a place to himself.

Buntley has made ends meet thanks to the $500 he receives every month from the city of Rochester with no strings attached, and no requirement to pay it back.

“Even though it’s once a month, it’s something that’s better than nothing,” said Buntley, 58. “And it sure enough gives support to me and my family, it helps me more than I can think of.”

Buntley is one of 351 extremely low-income Rochesterians who were selected to participate in the city’s Guaranteed Basic Income Pilot program. The program launched in phases, beginning last October.

Now, and for the first time, the city has provided demographics on who is enrolled, showing the most common recipient is a Black woman living on the city’s north side. The median age of those receiving GBI funds is 40.

Many are working and most also receive SNAP benefits.

The city funded 350 of the participants through $2.2 million in federal COVID relief dollars, while a $6,000 donation from a private citizen funded one person’s GBI payments. Since the program launched, one recipient moved out of the country, and a second has died. The city has until the end of the year to repurpose those dollars.

The program’s concept is simple: give poor people money with no stipulations and track what they spend money on.

To qualify for the program, a person must be at least 185% below the poverty line. Buntley, for example, makes $17 an hour at his full-time job as a patient care tech with Rochester Regional Health. His live-in fiancé is not working.

Birth of a pilot in Rochester

Rochester is not alone in experimenting with such a program, as cities across the country set out to test the waters of guaranteed basic income.

In some cases, the target is simple poverty alleviation. In others, the programs are looked at as a form of reparations to Black communities. In Rochester, it’s a mix of the two.

The idea of a GBI program was first proposed under former Mayor Lovely Warren and approved by the Rochester City Council in December 2021, under then-Mayor James Smith.

“The quickest path for Rochester families to escape poverty and build generational wealth is through the establishment of a guaranteed basic income,” Warren wrote to City Council when introducing legislation to establish the program.

The city tapped the Black Community Focus Fund, which is headed by the Rev. Myra Brown of Spiritus Christi Church, to administer the initiative. That included the task of ensuring all candidates fit the program’s qualifications.

For example, the city limited the program to certain city ZIP codes, largely in the northeast and northwest. More affluent neighborhoods, like Park Avenue and North Winton Village, were excluded from participating.

About a fifth of recipients live in the 14621 ZIP code, representing the largest proportion of participants.

“Poverty ravishes the souls of people, so we really have an opportunity to interrupt that by proposing a GBI program,” Brown said.

A senior pastor at Spiritus Christi, Brown has long served as a vocal advocate for racial and economic justice.

She served on the city’s Reparations and Universal Basic Income (RUBI) Committee, convened by Warren, that sought to explore the potential of such programs to address systemic poverty in Rochester.

“This kind of opened my eyes,” Brown said of the interview process for GBI candidates. “I didn’t realize the gravity of it until you have to interview 375 people and find out what their lives look like.”

Why GBI?

Rochester has been tracking various metrics around the GBI program, such as what participants spend their money on and what kind of effect the program has on their lives. That work is happening through a partnership with the University of Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities.

Brown said engaging with the Sheehan Lab allows for an independent party to offer reliable guidance for the program’s future. A report on Rochester’s outcome data is expected in the coming months.

The city’s GBI program is not the only game in town. The Bridge Project, a program through New York City-based nonprofit the Monarch Foundation, also launched a GBI program in Rochester last year offering new mothers $1,000 per month for three years.

And Rochester would not be the first program operator to track GBI participants’ spending. In January, Austin, Texas released data from its GBI pilot, under which 135 households were given $1,000 per month from September 2022 to August 2023.

The results showed 60% of the cash was spent on rent, 20% on basic needs, and 10% on other bills.

At Stanford University, the Basic Income Lab has sought to track globally the outcomes of GBI programs since 2017. Its research has so far analyzed spending data of 7,934 GBI program participants. The results show that retail expenses and groceries were the largest uses of GBI funds, at 36% and 31% respectively, followed by transportation and housing, both at 9%.

The Basic Income Lab is currently tracking 30 cities’ GBI pilots. Rochester is not one of them, although the Lab is tracking similar projects in Ithaca, Mt. Vernon, and New York City.

On Connections: How can cash payment programs help reduce poverty in the city?

“What the diversity of these pilots is teaching us is that not only is there a great need out there among a real diverse constituency of people, but that cities and counties, and nonprofits— doing their own pilots — are learning how to reach those people in ways that are better than they’ve been able to before,” said Sean Kline, director of the Basic Income Lab. “I think they’ve taken a look at our existing public policy and existing social safety nets and saw all the flaws in it.”

Kline said that there are about 40 “rigorous” analyses of GBI data on the way that will offer a deeper understanding of program outcomes.

The concept is nothing new, be it a guaranteed or even universal basic income — the latter providing supplemental payments to all, regardless of income. In fact, the first historical record of such a program was under Roman dictator Julius Caesar, who provided 100 denarii to every Roman citizen. Such programs have been the subject of academic debate for centuries, with some pointing to the concept as a way to ensure all people meet their basic needs.

Kline attributes the recent surge in programs to several factors.

In the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, businessman Andrew Yang put a spotlight on the idea with a campaign that promised a universal basic income.

Kline said that the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with social justice movements in 2020, led more cities to explore the concept of giving cash payments to their citizens.

“I think that all came together to create a moment where municipal leaders saw an urgency to take action when they didn’t see action being taken on the federal level,” Kline said.

About four months into the program, Buntley said the payments have lifted some of his financial weight. It’s a simple supplement that lets him make rent, pay down bills, and have more stability.

“It works,” Buntley said. “It helps those that really need the help.”

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