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Lightfoot stalled universal basic income pilot to use it as budget sweetener, former floor leader says

Ald. Gilbert Villegas said 5,000 of Chicago’s neediest families could have been getting $500 monthly checks since spring had the mayor not dragged her feet. Dozens of U.S. cities and towns already have such programs.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) speaks during a news conference at Daley Plaza, Monday afternoon, April 12, 2021.
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) told the Chicago Sun-Times that a universal basic income pilot program could have been launched months ago, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot delayed it so she include it in her proposed 2022 budget.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot was accused Thursday of blocking an alderman’s universal basic income proposal only to commandeer the idea and use the $31.5 million test program to sweeten the pot of her 2022 budget.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus, said 5,000 of Chicago’s neediest families would have been collecting $500 monthly checks since spring if only Lightfoot hadn’t dragged her feet on the ordinance he championed.

Instead, they’ll have to wait until at least January, when the mayor’s budget takes effect in and likely well into next spring before Chicago climbs aboard a guaranteed income bandwagon that already includes nearly four dozen cities and towns nationwide.

“It’s frustrating because this could have been done back in April, in May. It could have been done, quite frankly, through an executive order. So that way, we would do it as quickly as possible to get money into the hands of people [who] have been devastated by this pandemic,” Villegas told the Sun-Times.

“I had some discussions with the White House to make sure the … pilot program would be an allowable appropriation. I’m about wanting to get things done and I had proposed this idea to the administration only to have some pushback that they didn’t want to do this right now.”

Villegas spent nearly two years as Lightfoot’s City Council floor leader, only to step aside — replaced by Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) — after a no-fault political divorce that appeared to be by mutual agreement.

Why did Lightfoot stall the program then and pirate it now?

“I’m not sure. I think it has to do with wanting to put a lot of good things in the budget, which would make it harder for folks” to vote against, Villegas said.

During a meeting with the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board this week, Lightfoot offered no explanation for the months-long delay and called the program urgently needed, even though neither she nor her financial team could pinpoint the eligibility requirements.

At one point, she even described it as a $3 million program; the actual cost is $31.5 million.

She was motivated, she said, by her own family’s struggle growing up.

“I have such vivid memories of parents sitting around our little kitchen table with the bills out and trying to figure out what they were gonna pay and how they were gonna pay it and that constant juggling,” she said.

“That is the life that many people in our city are living right now today. So addressing that real and urgent pain point is something that I think we have not only an opportunity to do, but an obligation to do.”

Villegas said his own support for universal basic income is rooted in a similarly personal story.

“I’m a product of a program that is similar, called the survivors death benefits for Social Security. When my dad died when I was eight, my mom was left with two boys. She had a job. And fortunately, she was able to get 800 bucks a month until I was 18 for both me and my brother,” Villegas said.

“The federal government invested in us. And as a result of that, both me and my brother went into the Marines. So we paid back our debt to the federal government. But more importantly, we’ve been taxpayers since we were 18. So we’ve paid back the investment the federal government made in this four- or five-fold.”

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.

Villegas served on that task force, but for his pilot program suggested $500 monthly checks to 5,000 families to “uplift as many families as possible.”

Critics of universal basic income have warned recipients would stop working. Naysayers also fear some would spend the monthly stipend on drugs and alcohol.

On Thursday, Villegas confronted both stereotypes head-on, noting Stanford University analyzed a similar but much smaller program in Stockton, California.

Just 1% “spent it on alcohol and cigarettes,” while 12% “got a better job because they were able to take a sick day and not have to worry about making ends meet at the end of the month while they tried to benefit themselves,” Villegas said.

“If you’re thinking that someone’s gonna retire or stop working for $6,000 a year? Where the heck are you gonna live in the city of Chicago for $6,000 a year?” he added.

“$6,000 per family would allow a working mom to either work with dignity or … let her spend it on some day care so that she doesn’t have to take the second job, which means that, potentially, the streets are gonna be watching the kids, which in turn leads to gang violence.”