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Villegas forges ahead with guaranteed basic income pilot program

The chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus has said it would be a “slap in the face” to African Americans to talk about monthly payments to needy families before dealing with reparations to Chicagoans whose ancestors were enslaved.

Chicago City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.
Chicago City Hall.
Sun-Times file

Undaunted by a colleague’s warning that reparations must come first, an influential alderman is forging ahead with an ordinance establishing the parameters to bring a $30 million universal basic income program to Chicago.

Last month, a seemingly harmless resolution calling for the city to use part of the $1.9 billion avalanche of federal relief funds headed to Chicago to launch that guaranteed income pilot turned into an emotional debate about reparations.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said then that it would be a “slap in the face” to African Americans who have “suffered great atrocities over time in this country” to talk about giving 5,000 of Chicago’s neediest families guaranteed monthly payments when aldermen have just begun talking about paying reparations to Chicagoans whose ancestors were enslaved.

The message apparently did not get through to Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s former floor leader, who still chairs the Committee on Capital and Economic Development.

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Villegas plans to introduce an ordinance setting aside $30 million of the new round of coronavirus relief money for a 12-month guaranteed income pilot program.

That would be enough to give 5,000 of Chicago’s neediest families $500 a month, no strings attached.

The first payment would begin June 30. The program would automatically expire exactly one year later “without further action of the City Council.”

To qualify for the $500 payments, Chicago residents generally would need to show they’ve been impacted by the pandemic and their annual income is no more than triple the federal poverty rate — roughly $38,640 for a single Chicagoan and $52,260 for a married couple.

Villegas estimated the families of more than 90% of Chicago Public School students would be eligible for the guaranteed payments, since they already qualify for free lunches.

Ervin stood his ground, arguing reparations must come first.

“It’s tantamount to being pushed to the back of the line again. African Americans — not only in the city, but in this state and in this country — have always been at the back of the line when it came time for resources,” Ervin said.

“Resources for the descendants of slaves should take front-and-center if we’re gonna start giving money out to anybody. When you look at the atrocities that our community has endured over the years, it’s just appropriate that some level of understanding and remuneration be granted for such. This is not a new idea. This is not foreign.”

Villegas countered Blacks and Hispanics would benefit from guaranteed income payments. The coronavirus pandemic, he argued, has been an “equal opportunity destroyer” in Chicago’s Black and Brown communities and families struggling to pay for rent, food, clothing and medical care cannot afford to wait.

“The reparations discussion has been going on for decades. I’ve yet to see an ordinance on it,” Villegas said Monday. “In the meantime, am I gonna continue waiting? Our communities that have been impacted by COVID, should they wait? We need to get money into peoples’ hands to help them recover from the pandemic. I saw a need. I introduced an ordinance. I intend to move forward with it.”

Last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s financial team told aldermen more than half of Chicago’s $1.9 billion in federal stimulus funds would be gobbled up by retiring $965 million in scoop-and-toss borrowing used to eliminate the pandemic-induced shortfall.

But even with the borrowing plan, Villegas argued there’s plenty of money for his guaranteed income pilot.

“We have to ensure that it is not just Wall Street that benefits” from the federal funds, Villegas said.

“We need to make sure that residents of Main Streets in Chicago get much-needed assistance.”

On that point, Villegas and Ervin agree.

“There definitely needs to be some debt retirement as part of this program. The question, though, is what about the needs of our citizens?” Ervin said.

“While our government would be solvent, if our people aren’t solvent, then we’re stuck. ... We also need to look at the needs of everyday, ordinary Chicagoans as well.”