Both Chicago and Cook County are in the process of launching guaranteed income programs that will provide more than 8,000 residents with $500 a month, no strings attached.
While applications for Cook County residents will open in the fall, the residents chosen for Chicago’s Resilient Communities program have already started to receive monthly payments.
According to city data, 176,000 people applied for the program. Of those applicants:
• 64% live below the poverty line
• 68% identified as Black or African-American
• 70% of applicants identified as a woman
• 17% cited having a disability
• 9% indicated that they are housing insecure or homeless
Audra Wilson, president and CEO of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, said offering cash supplements without limitations is a crucial facet of the program.
“Direct cash payments makes such a considerable difference to families. It gives individuals the agency to invest in what’s best for their needs, whether they’re starting a business, or keeping a roof over their heads or feeding their families or caring for children,” Wilson said. “This is very different than many existing social safety net programs that have work requirements or can suddenly eliminate assistance when individuals receive any modest increase in income.”
The potential for an income increase adversely affecting participants was one of many complications taken into consideration by Chicago’s Department of Family Support and Services, which is in charge of administering the program.
The department’s Commissioner Brandie Knazze said her staff lobbied to get waivers for SNAP and SSI recipients.
“We really thought about …the benefits cliff. We didn’t want someone to say, 'You know what, I could use $500, but I’m on another social service program. And so I don’t want to lose my SNAP benefits or my SSI,’” Knazze said. “Fifty-six percent of those who applied also had SNAP benefits … we learned that other cities excluded those populations because they didn’t want them to be negatively impacted.”
Knazze said making sure news of the program reached the most in need was a tall order.
“One of the first things we wanted to do is make sure that the program targeted caregivers and parents. We know that during the pandemic, many individuals had to step away from their regular duties to stay at home to do online learning or take care of their loved ones,” she said. “But we knew that besides that, there were hard-to-reach populations that we wanted to impact. So we wanted to make sure those who were undocumented or domestic workers or people who didn’t speak English as their first language, that we really got to them.”
Those messengers were a number of outreach partner organizations, among them the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago. CEO Nicole Robinson described how the YWCA performed outreach for the pilot.
“There’s so many residents across Chicago who even before the pandemic have been coping with job loss, with food insecurity, with housing insecurity, with childcare and that is stressful. And what this program does is not just fill the gaps in those areas but actually provides some relief,” Robinson said. “We were in the community, boots on the ground, and had a coalition of hundreds of partners across this city, all committed and unified under this one idea of making sure residents were aware. So that means we were in churches and faith institutions, we were in barbershops, we were in laundromats, we were going door to door, working with lots of partners to spread the word.”
Guaranteed income programs like Chicago’s and Cook County’s have the potential to substantially advance racial and economic justice, said Wilson.
“The concept of guaranteed income has been championed by civil rights leaders for decades, including Dr. King himself as a solution to address racial and economic justice. And this is a very bold but simple approach to combating poverty and reducing economic insecurity,” Wilson said. “Across the country, these pilots have … measurably improved people’s financial stability. But I think it’s important to note that launching this pilot in the third largest city in the country, concurrent with the Cook County promised guaranteed income pilot, which is launching the second most populous county in the country, is extraordinarily significant because these joint pilots can promote the national dialogue about guaranteed income and can help to craft broader national initiatives.”