Aldermen take first step toward universal basic income pilot program

Ald. Gilbert Villegas hopes to use $30 million in federal relief funds to test the idea of a guaranteed basic income. As a test, he envisions giving 5,000 of Chicago’s neediest families $500 a month, no strings attached.

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Chicago City Hall, with the Board of Trade building in the background.

Some Chicago aldermen are pushing to test out a program guaranteeing a basic income to city residents.

Sun-Times file

Arguing that the coronavirus pandemic has been an “equal opportunity destroyer” in Chicago’s Black and Brown communities, Chicago aldermen on Thursday took their first step toward a trail-blazing solution: universal basic income.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Economic and Capital Development, led his committee through a subject matter hearing that, he hopes, will quickly result in launching the guaranteed income pilot, using $30 million of the $1.8 billion avalanche of federal relief funds on its way to Chicago.

Villegas and his co-sponsors — aldermen Sophia King (4th) and Maria Hadden (49th) envision a pilot program that will give 5,000 of Chicago’s neediest families $500 a month — no strings attached.

A similar pilot in Los Angeles identified 500 households run by single mothers. Chicago’s experiment could be similarly targeted, or the monthly checks could go to households within certain income limits, Villegas said.

“If you take a look at where most of the need would be, it would probably fall in the Black and Brown communities for sure. I mean — this pandemic has been an equal opportunity destroyer,” said Villegas, noting that “60% of African Americans and 72% of Latinos have had to dip into their savings, [and] 35% of white families have had to do the same to try to survive during this pandemic.”

The one-year timeframe would give the city time to “demonstrate to corporations and philanthropic organizations that we have skin in the game,” Villegas said. After that, he’s hoping corporate and private donors will bankroll a much broader program going forward.

It’s not the first time Chicago has considered climbing aboard a guaranteed income bandwagon that now includes more than 44 cities and towns nationwide.

Two years ago, a task force on universal basic income in Chicago appointed by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel suggested giving 1,000 struggling Chicagoans monthly payments of $1,000 to help break the cycle of poverty.

Their 50-page report pegged the cost at $12 million, to be bankrolled by an unspecified mix of city funds and philanthropic dollars. But the report got lost during the change in administrations.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security office in Springfield.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security office in Springfield. A universal basic income helps people feel less trapped in a low-paying job because they can afford to take a little time off to look for a better job, one California mayor testified Thursday.

Associated Press

During Thursday’s hearing, Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton, California, discussed the stereotypical fears voiced before his city’s pilot program was launched.

Critics warned the monthly check would make struggling recipients stop working. Instead, they “worked more,” Tubbs said, and were “twice as likely to exit from part-time work to full-time” jobs.

“When you’re working paycheck to paycheck, you don’t have paid time off. To interview for another job is tantamount to taking a risk that could cost you $200. It could cost you an eviction. So a lot of people are stuck where they are,” Tubbs said.

The naysayers further warned recipients would spend the monthly stipend on drugs and alcohol. Instead, stress and depression levels decreased among the beneficiaries. Tubbs called it “comparable to Prozac.”

Tubbs noted former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded to a pandemic and the Great Depression by “thinking differently about our economy.”

“Unemployment was a bold and innovative and radical idea in 1935. It is now 2021. Our pandemic response can’t be based on 1935 models. ... I don’t want to live in a country with a 1935 social safety net,” Tubbs said.

“This is our New Deal moment.”

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