A proposal to use $30 million from the city’s share of the latest COVID-19 relief package to fund cash assistance payments to Chicagoans struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic is set to be introduced to the Chicago City Council on Wednesday.
The proposal authored by Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th Ward) would send 5,000 families $500 per month for a year as part of an effort to study whether a universal basic income could help Chicagoans recover from the economic catastrophe of the coronavirus pandemic and fight poverty.
In March, the City Council voted 30-18 to approve a nonbinding resolution calling for Mayor Lori Lightfoot to support the effort after the measure triggered a heated debate about whether the city should use its share of the latest federal relief package to pay reparations to Chicagoans who are the descendants of enslaved people.
Black Caucus Chairman Ald. Jason Ervin (28th Ward) called the proposal “a slap in the face to people that have suffered great atrocities over time in this country.” Ten African American aldermen voted against the measure.
Lightfoot has been decidedly cool to the effort to test a universal basic income in Chicago with the $1.9 billion Chicago is set to get as part of the relief package signed into law by President Joe Biden.
If the proposal advances at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Villegas’ proposal could be heard by a committee in the coming weeks, setting up a final vote as soon as May. But such a high-profile project would be unlikely to pass without the mayor’s support.
The city’s top financial officials told aldermen April 14 they will recommend using $965 million in federal relief funds to pay off the high-interest debt the city incurred to balance its 2020 and 2021 budgets, which were decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic. That is approximately half of what Chicago expects from the relief package.
To qualify for the payments, Villegas’ proposal would require applicants to prove that they lost income because of the pandemic, either because they had their hours cut or were laid off or because they contracted the virus or were forced to quit to care for a child whose day care or school closed.
In addition, to qualify for the payments sent via a debit card, applicants with a family of four must earn no more than $79,500 annually, or three times the federal poverty limit, according to the proposal. Applicants would only have to live in Chicago — their citizenship status would not be considered, according to the proposal.
The debate is the first skirmish in the coming battle over how Chicago should spend its share of the latest federal COVID-19 relief package.
Progressive aldermen and groups blasted Lightfoot in February for her decision to use $281.5 million in COVID-19 federal relief funds approved by Congress in March to cover the cost of salaries and benefits for Chicago Police Department officers. Instead, the money would have been better spent directly helping Chicagoans endure the economic collapse triggered by the pandemic, they said.
Lightfoot called that criticism “just dumb” and said her decision saved Chicago taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars during the peak of the pandemic’s first wave.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Tuesday backed a program that would send $1,000 monthly payments to 2,000 residents of the nation’s second largest city. Andrew Yang, who made a universal basic income the centerpiece of his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, has made that proposal part of his campaign for mayor of New York, where he is leading in the polls.