Plan to pay 1,000 residents $1,000 a month—no strings attached—pitched by panel

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Ald. Ameya Pawar is interviewed by Chicago Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman at City Hall last year. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Each month, 1,000 struggling Chicagoans would get $1,000, no strings attached, to help break the cycle of poverty, under a trail-blazing pilot program proposed Thursday by a mayoral task force.

Days after choosing political retirement over the uphill battle for a third term, Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked retiring Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), who has championed the cause of income inequality, to chair a task force to consider universal basic income in Chicago.

On Thursday, that task force, co-chaired by SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff and Celena Roldan, CEO of the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois, proposed a path forward.

Their 50-page report proposes that Chicago forge ahead by giving 1,000 people $1,000-a-month, which adds up to $12 million a year, to be bankrolled by an unspecified mix of city funds and philanthropic dollars.

The selection process and eligibility requirements would be left to the new mayor and City Council. But the task force recommends a citywide program not concentrated in any one geographic area or in any one age, racial or ethnic group.

The Chicago pilot should also be open to both individuals and families, to help seniors “age in place” but also help young people waiting longer to get married and have children.

The task force also recommended expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit: families earning up to $75,000 annually would get $100-per-month; payments would be spread out “so the income is predictable”; and an automatic filing option would be created, to “bring more workers into the fold, particularly unpaid caregivers as well people with middle-class incomes and students.”

Chicago should also consider creating its own version of the earned-income credit and explore a “broad suite of policies and complementary actions” to increase worker stability, economic security, strengthen the safety net, bolster consumer protections and increase economic mobility.

That’s an apparent reference to the current movement in Springfield to gradually raise Illinois’ minimum wage to $15 an hour and give working families a “diaper allowance.”

The cornerstone is the “guaranteed income pilot” that would “help us learn how government can operate and bring programs like this to scale,” the report states.

“Suggested pilot would reach 1,000 Chicagoans with $1,000-a-month,” the report states.

“Guaranteed income can have powerful effects: significant reductions in poverty; ability to cover an unexpected emergency; improve school attendance; an increase in savings and improvements to health and well-being. These are goals that every Chicagoan can get behind.”

Pawar said there’s a reason the 50-page report spends a great deal of time recounting interviews with Chicagoans struggling to make ends meet.

To get widespread political buy-in, a “narrative change” is needed, because “most public policy aimed at confronting poverty is “rooted in prejudice,” Pawar said.

“There is this belief in the United States that, if you help poor people, they’ll get addicted to help when what we know is, if you help poor people and give them cash, they make the same decisions people with money make,” Pawar said.

“We talked to lots of people about what they would do with an extra $500 or $1,000 a month. People would buy diapers. They would pay for child care and food. They would go see a doctor and put money aside for savings.”

Pawar is abiding by a self-imposed two-term limit and running for city treasurer on a platform to create a public bank that just might be a potential source of funding for a local version of universal basic income.

He has also floated a plan to sell or give away shares in Chicago’s water system to city residents and pay them dividends, just as Alaska residents benefit from their state’s embarrassment of oil riches.

And Pawar has proposed using city employee pension funds and city investments to help solve the student loan crisis that has dramatically impacted his own household.

Thursday, Pawar acknowledged it will be up to “hopefully, a progressive mayor and progressive City Council” to decide whether and how to forge ahead with a universal basic income pilot.

“We would be the biggest city in the world to test this idea. This is an opportunity to lead the nation. … This is an opportunity to have a global conversation based in Chicago.”

Also on Thursday, a coalition of progressive groups led by United Working Families unveiled a long-shot $3.7 billion revenue plan for the new mayor.

It calls for free public transit, tuition-free community college and universal childhood education paid for by: a city income tax on high-earning residents and commuters; a transaction tax on LaSalle Street exchanges and high-end real estate transfers; and “vacancy taxes on luxury apartment buildings.”

Editor’s note: Some unions and labor organizations have ownership stakes in Sun-Times Media, including the Service Employees International Union, Local No. 1 (SEIU Local 1).

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