Chicago is first major American city to champion a guaranteed income

Yesterday, I was honored to join the inaugural meeting of the Chicago Resilient Families Initiative Task Force, which is in the process of developing recommendations on how the city can establish a guaranteed income pilot. The task force is co-chaired by SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff and Celena Roldan, CEO of the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois.

Introduced by Alderman Ameya Pawar and approved by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the coalition of community leaders were brought together to explore a guaranteed income in Chicago, namely how to design a universal basic income pilot in Chicago and how we might modernize the Earned Income Tax Credit on a municipal, state and federal level to guarantee an income to those who need it most.

The reason young, progressive leaders like Alderman Pawar are putting their political capital behind the Chicago Resilient Families Initiative is simple — a quarter of full-time workers rely on public assistance to make ends meet, and many are taking on multiple jobs in order to provide for their families amidst stagnant wages, the rising cost of living and the changing nature of work.

Alderman Ameya Pawar welcoming the Resilient Families Task Force

Chicago took notice of Mayor Michael Tubbs’s work in Stockton, CA. Under the leadership of the city’s bold and innovative 28-year-old Mayor, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) will begin disbursing payments of $500 to a group of 100 residents and families early next year — the first city-led demonstration of a guaranteed income.

Mayor Tubbs and Alderman Pawar are not alone. State Representative Chris Lee of Hawaii has already introduced legislation to enact guaranteed income in his state, and now Chicago joins the ranks of a small — but growing — group of governments recognizing the potential and power of allowing residents to make their own financial decisions through unconditional cash.

It’s no accident that it’s young elected officials — all people of color —who are leading on tackling big problems with bold solutions. Young workers, and particularly the young people of color, face lower wages and higher odds of dislocation due to automation in the job market. They’re leaders of a generation, who by and large, will do worse than their parents for the first time in American history if we don’t turn the tide.

Pilots are an excellent way to gain more knowledge around best practices and logistics of implementing new programs, but we already have the evidence to know that our country’s largest cash transfer program, the Earned Income Tax Credit, is the most effective anti-poverty tool we have.

The Economic Security Project supports a modernization of the program called the Working Families Tax Credit, which extends the financial benefit to the middle class, debits the income directly into accounts each month, and expands the definition of work — parents taking care of young children, family members caring for elderly relatives and students working toward an education.

Making the Working Families Tax Credit monthly is an important way to deal with income volatility. It’s an idea that builds on the successful Chicago Housing Authority study of quarterly payments, in which they found that 90 percent of recipients preferred periodic payments — and that periodic payments improve financial stability while also being administratively feasible. Monthly payments help offset the growing unpredictable nature of employment and paychecks that can make it incredibly difficult for workers to plan around a tight budget by offering a reliable, recurring boost to those who need it most.

The different ways of enacting a guaranteed income all share a common philosophy — that everyone deserves economic freedom and dignity. We’re at the most prosperous time in history, yet those gains are, by and large, only going to a very small fraction of Americans. It’s time that we start making our economy work for everyone.

This week’s task force meeting in Chicago grappled with these questions, and many more. I am confident that in the coming months, the work created by this stellar group of leaders, advocates and direct service providers will yield results that will help us achieve our shared goal of creating an economy one day that provides financial opportunity to all Americans.