Finding the best way to help the needy

If the city’s new universal basic income program can help struggling families pay their bills, then the money is well spent. But why can’t Congress get it together to fix whatever’s missing with programs already out there?

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Kenny Doss II, center, gives a turkey to Paulette Stokes, left, while Latoya Landrum, right, assists them at Ogden Park where over 200 free turkeys were distributed to Englewood residents on Nov. 13, 2021.

Kenny Doss II, center, gives a turkey to Paulette Stokes, left, while Latoya Landrum, right, assists them at Ogden Park where over 200 free turkeys were distributed to Englewood residents on Nov. 13, 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Applications open on April 25 for a citywide lottery to select 5,000 Chicagoans who will receive $500 per month for a year, and those who are struggling financially should make sure to apply.

The Chicago Resilient Communities Pilot is a $31.5 million initiative funded by the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is touting it as the largest universal basic income program in the nation.

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Helping struggling families get back on their feet is something we support. If the pilot can help families buy groceries, fix their car, pay the electric bill and make sure their kids have a decent pair of new shoes, then the money is well spent.

But it makes us wonder: Why can’t Congress get it together to fix whatever’s missing with programs already out there, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Some proponents of universal basic income programs have suggested adopting direct cash payments as an easier-to-administer substitute for the maze of social welfare programs that currently exist. Perhaps there’s something to that.

But that brings us, once again, to the direct cash payments that Congress let lapse and ought to resume: the monthly federal child tax credit payments adopted under the American Rescue Plan.

Under the ARP, the child tax credit became a one-year, near-universal cash benefit for families, with eligibility extended to households with little or no taxable income for the first time. Each month, families received $250 per children age 6 to 17 or $300 for each child age 5 and under.

It was a critical safety net for families trying to make it through the pandemic. When the payments expired in December, data showed an estimated 138,000 children in Illinois and 3.7 million nationwide fell back into poverty.

A universal basic income pilot is a temporary fix. Making the child tax credit permanent is a better one.

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