Chicago can show its best self by creating a guaranteed minimum income for all

The time could not be riper for Chicago to lead the nation toward greater collective prosperity.

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As part of Chicago’s 2022 budget, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has proposed a pilot program to give 5,000 low-income households $500 a month with no strings attached.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Before the coronavirus pandemic, economists and politicians of all persuasions celebrated the economy. They boasted about historically low unemployment, low inflation and a soaring stock market.

But hidden in plain view was an economy where only 4 in 10 Americans had $400 in the bank for an emergency. Most lived from paycheck to paycheck. Moreover, the cost of housing, childcare and student loan debt was crippling young and old alike.

In other words, we had an economy in which the poor were growing poorer, reminiscent of America’s Gilded Age.

Then came the virus and federal policymakers did something profound. Instead of calls for austerity and lectures about personal responsibility, they gave people money.

For instance, most Americans received three rounds of stimulus payments. Then, in July, most households with children began receiving between $250 and $300 per month from an expanded child tax credit. In addition, policymakers provided boosts to food stamps, put a moratorium on evictions and sent billions in forgivable loans to small businesses.

And then something remarkable happened. Amid a devastating pandemic, poverty went down.

Seizing on this moment, many elected officials sought to make the child tax credit permanent as others worked to grow the movement for making a guaranteed income part of America’s social safety net. In doing so, these leaders challenged deeply held beliefs about cash aid. 

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Here in Chicago, we face a historic opportunity to magnify on a local level what federal policymakers have initiated. In a city bludgeoned by a long history of systemic racism and disinvestment, the contrast between a thriving economy and crippling poverty is particularly stark. Though Chicago is ranked among the richest cities in the world, more than 39% of its residents qualify as low-income. Though the city is home to more Fortune 500 company headquarters than almost any other American city, one in four of our children live in poverty.

That is why Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Guaranteed Income Pilot Program, which she unveiled in her 2022 proposed budget, is so critical. Building off a foundation laid by the Chicago Resilient Families Task Force in 2019 — the nation’s first city-led task force to make a recommendation on guaranteed income — and the excellent work of Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) and Ald. Sophia King (4th), the pilot would give 5,000 low-income households $500 a month for a year no-strings-attached.

The impact of this proposal could be transformative. Research on other guaranteed income programs in Stockton, California; Jackson, Mississippi; and rural western North Carolina demonstrate the immense positive outcomes on families who receive the cash transfers. Recipients can meet basic needs and invest in their families’ futures, and they report more hope and optimism for their lives

But perhaps an even more remarkable outcome of the proposed pilot would be for Chicago to help lead a broader national conversation.

We need a social safety net that sets up people for success instead of doing the bare minimum. We need to scrap means tests that penalize people for failed economic policies. In short, our policies are broken, not people. The time could not be riper for Chicago to lead American cities with such a narrative. 

We have the opportunity to show the country Chicago’s best self and remind America of our nation’s best parts. We can simultaneously reach high with one hand and reach down with the other. We can dig past the superficial myths that singular individuals bring about success toward the greater truth that we are all joint owners of our collective prosperity.

We can both produce great wealth and recognize that poverty is a policy choice, and we can end poverty with more humane policies. For the city of Big Shoulders and No Little Plans, what better place to pave that path than Chicago?

We call on the City Council to adopt the mayor’s guaranteed income pilot program and pass the 2022 budget. 

Ameya Pawar served two terms in the Chicago City Council and co-chaired the Chicago Resilient Families Task Force. He is a fellow with the Open Society Foundations and the Economic Security Project and a senior adviser with the Academy Group. Brian C. Johnson is the CEO of Equality Illinois and the author of “Our Fair Share: How One Small Change Can Create a More Equitable American Economy.”

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