Why cities are piloting guaranteed income programs

In the final chapter of his 1967 book “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proposed a bold approach to eliminating poverty. “The solution to poverty,” he wrote, “is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

Five decades later, the approach is being tested across the U.S.

The idea is simple but controversial.

People receive a set amount of money periodically with no strings attached. Advocates believe that this gives recipients, often in the most marginalized groups, freedom to spend it in ways that are most beneficial for their families. Critics call it an irresponsible handout, which does little to address systemic inequality.

We first reported on the concept when Stockton, California’s then-Mayor Michael Tubbs helped create the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, or SEED, the first citywide guaranteed income program in the country. Launched in February 2019, 125 randomly selected citizens received $500 a month for two years. Later, researchers found that in its first year, full time employment among SEED recipients went up by 12%.

On the other side of the country, Hudson, New York launched its own guaranteed income pilot, “HudsonUP”, in October 2020. The program is currently providing each of its 128 recipients with $500 a month for five years.

The minds behind the pilot hope to reverse the trend of residents being priced out of their homes because of the growing number of people moving in from nearby New York City. Lira Campbell, a retired educator and HudsonUp recipient said the program was helping her save money to buy a house.

Once a thriving steel town, Gary, Indiana is now a city with a declining population and the highest unemployment rate in the state. Gary’s program, the Guaranteed Income Validation Effort or G.I.V.E., began in May 2021 and is distributing $500 a month to 125 residents for one year.

Not every guaranteed income program is city-run.

Miracle Money in San Francisco was funded through a GoFundMe campaign set up by sociologist Kevin Adler. The program, which began in February 2021 and ran for six months, distributed $500 a month to 14 people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco. The program later reported that about two-thirds of those recipients who were unhoused when the pilot began were able to secure housing through the course of the program.

The Magnolia Mother’s Trust is a privately run guaranteed income program and is also one of the longest running in the country. Launched in 2018, it’s now distributing $1,000 a month to 100 Black mothers in Jackson, Mississippi.

The Bridge Project in New York City is addressing child poverty in one of the biggest cities in the world. One hundred mothers of newborns in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Manhattan are receiving either $500 or $1,000 for three years.

The first few years of a child’s life are pivotal and new research has found that a guaranteed income may actually help brain development during this time. The Baby’s First Years study is examining how poverty reduction affects cognitive, emotional, and brain development in young children. Recently, the researchers behind the study published findings from the first year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Two researchers in the study–Dr. Kimberly Noble and Professor Hirokazu Yoshikawa–explained more about the potential of those early findings.

Some advocates warn that the programs are not a silver bullet to eradicate poverty and income inequality. Aisha Nyandoro, Founder, the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, says the current crop of guaranteed income programs – including hers – are only a temporary fix. “I feel like that would be a failure, if it is permanent,” she said, adding that America needed federal policy to support and sustain guaranteed income programs.