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Many cities across the country are beginning to experiment with the idea of a guaranteed income: an amount of money meant to address the basic needs of a person living in the U.S., distributed on top of regular income. In Hudson, NY, a small city of just over 6,000, a guaranteed income pilot has been running since October 2020. NewsHour Weekend’s Zachary Green visited the city to learn more as a part of our series “Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America.”
Earlier this month, President Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act into law. It's the third relief package for Americans since the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Those checks, which began rolling out last week, will go directly to families that qualify. The added relief is also piquing interest in the concept of universal basic income.
Even before the pandemic, some cities like Stockton, California were already experimenting with a guaranteed income program and showing signs of success. Now, more cities across the country are signing on. NewsHour Weekend's Zachary Green visited one in New York to learn more. This segment is part of our ongoing series, "Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America."
Just two hours away from New York City, Hudson, New York–a small city of about six thousand people–is a prime weekend getaway spot. But it's also the site of one of the country's first citywide experiments in universal basic income, or UBI. Last October, 25 Hudson residents began receiving five hundred dollars a month. Joan Hunt is the director of HudsonUP, the city's guaranteed income pilot. It receives its funding from The Spark of Hudson Foundation and former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang's nonprofit organization, Humanity Forward.
The question is always, "So why Hudson?" And I think there was interest from both parties– in sort of the size and scale of the community here in Hudson and the potential of a pilot like this. And definitely the need.
Lira Campbel is a retired educator who has lived in Hudson since 2002. She says that need became clear to her not long after moving here when she was speaking with a friend.
She said, "Yeah, I gotta move. Someone from the city came and bought the house. The new owners raised the rent. And I can't afford it." That was the first story of many.
According to the real estate website, Zillow, the average home value in Hudson went up by nearly sixty percent in the past ten years. During that time, the median household income for Hudson residents stayed below forty-thousand dollars a year. And despite a relatively low unemployment rate, about twenty-three percent of Hudson's population lives in poverty. Since 1990, roughly two-thousand people have moved away. Hudson's mayor, Kamal Johnson, says that gentrification is driving the exodus from the city.
Mayor Kamal Johnson:
We see a lot of– transplants from New York City and from other big cities that are now coming here. And that's tough on the people that grew up here. You see a lot less of the people you went to school with– because they're forced to move to the outskirts of the city.
Even in the midst of the pandemic and the resulting financial crisis, Hudson home values rose by ten percent since last year. Meanwhile, longtime residents are finding it difficult to stay in the city without government assistance.
It's become really hard for families to find– affordable spaces outside of– subsidized housing.
Claire Cousin grew up in Hudson and now sits on the city's housing authority.
Most people that have children are only looking to get on wait lists for subsidized housing because that's the only thing that is sustainable and affordable for them. I've known people that have contacted me for help as an advocate because they've been on the wait list for three years. And their only alternative is to squeeze their families into smaller apartments for higher rents.
That's where Joan Hunt says the HudsonUP pilot can fill in the gap.
We see UBI as a real opportunity for folks to stay in their community. To be able to maybe take on a little bit of an extra burden when it comes to rent.
The concept is simple. For the next five years, twenty-five Hudson residents will receive five hundred dollars a month, direct deposited either into an account at a local credit union or onto a prepaid debit card. The participants can then spend or save the money in any way they see fit.
I can hear a lot of people being like, "You're giving people $500 a month and they don't have to do anything for it? People are gonna be spending their money on things that they don't need." What do you say to somebody who has those objections?
There's a history of– judgment when it comes to people in poverty. And this misconception that people with limited resources don't know how to make decisions that are best for them and their families. When, in fact, they're the experts in their own experience and they do know what's best for them and their families.
HudsonUP put the word out about the program through local organizations and advocates–including Claire Cousin, who also heads up the board for the grassroots Hudson/Catskill Housing Coalition.
It seemed really far-fetched. So I spent most of my time explaining it to other folks. And trying to get them to not be so skeptical, just to apply.
HudsonUP also won the support of Mayor Kamal Johnson, who held a virtual town hall with Andrew Yang last September to explain the concept of universal basic income.
If this trial demonstrates that people live better as a result of something as straight-forward as getting $500 a month for 5 years, there is no reason that we as a country cannot make this happen for everyone.
Eventually, 488 Hudson residents entered the lottery for HudsonUP. One of them was Lira Campbell.
Then I get this communication, "Don't forget, tonight is the last night to put your name in for the lottery for UBI." And I said, "I'm not doing that." And then my mind said, "Why not?"
Campbell filled out and submitted a short questionnaire. Five days later, she received a call telling her that she had been chosen as one of the first twenty-five HudsonUP participants.
When it happened, I was totally thrown over the moon. I think I screamed. And then I went and I said to my husband, "Guess what? Guess what? Guess what?" Because I felt like I was gonna bust.
Campbell says that even though she and her husband can afford the home they rent in Hudson, the extra $500 a month made a big impact in their lives during a trying time.
My husband had been diagnosed with cancer. So when someone you love and care about is diagnosed, a family member, you wanna do everything you can so they can be healthy and safe and get through it. And then the second thing you think about is, 'how am I gonna pay for this?' Because you know automatically it's radiation. It's chemo. It might be surgery. So all these things pop into your head. So when I found out that I won, I was like, "God, you are so amazing. God, you are so awesome." Like, this is the perfect time.
Campbell says that receiving a guaranteed income has also improved her peace of mind and her outlook on the future.
I can go to bed at night and stop thinking, 'How? How am I gonna pay for this? How am I gonna get this? How I'm gonna do this?' So it took away the how. And it took away the worries. It just allows me to do a little bit more and to save a lot more.
Is there anything in particular that you're saving for?
I wanna buy a house. That's my goal. Yeah, that's what I wanna do.
HudsonUp director Joan Hunt says that she's seen similar effects on other program participants
We've had participants use some of their UBI funds to repair their car, for example. Some folks are saving the funds. Some folks were able to give their kids a very nice Christmas for the first time in a long time. I've been working in the non-profit space– since 2006. And I have never seen a program like guaranteed income that provides families with what their most basic need is, which is additional cash.
Mayor Kamal Johnson is now a member of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a nationwide network of city leaders–many of whom are also pursuing guaranteed income programs. Johnson believes that Hudson has a big role to play in learning more about the efficacy of UBI.
We're the little city with– big-city issues. So whatever happens here is most likely happening in other cities. But we can kinda– see the scope of how it affects, and the research of how people are spending their money. You know, how they're interacting with the community. We can see that on a closer lens than in someone who's a big city where, you know, there's so many people that, you know, you'll probably lose the person that you're trying to research through the process.
Lira Campbell–whose husband is now in remission–hopes to see more people receiving the same benefits that she is soon.
Everyone could use an extra $500 in their pocket unless they're millionaires, because life happens. And a lotta time, when life happens, a lotta time, we're not prepared 'cause we don't have the resources. We don't have the financial resources to be prepared. So I would say be happy for anyone and everyone who receives– the guaranteed income, because it's something that makes life easier and better for everyone. And we should want that for each other. In this world, we should want that.
Watch the Full Episode
Zachary Green began working in online and broadcast news in 2009. Since then he has produced stories all over the U.S. and overseas in Ireland and Haiti. In his time at NewsHour, he has reported on a wide variety of topics, including climate change, immigration, voting rights, and the arts. He also produced a series on guaranteed income programs in the U.S. and won a 2015 National Headliner Award in business and consumer reporting for his report on digital estate planning. Prior to joining Newshour, Zachary was an Associate Producer for Need to Know on PBS, during which he assisted in producing stories on gun violence and healthcare, among others. He also provided narration for the award-winning online documentary series, “Retro Report”.
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