Report highlights mental toll on Chicago residents who applied for guaranteed income program

About one in three applicants who applied for the city’s guaranteed income pilot program to receive $500 a month for a year reported issues with their mental health.

SHARE Report highlights mental toll on Chicago residents who applied for guaranteed income program
Yessenia Cervantes-Vázquez, a lead community health worker with Rush Community Health Center who is helping people apply for the Chicago Resilient Communities Pilot, speaks with Fernando and Stephany Acevedo in the basement of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Pilsen.

Yessenia Cervantes-Vázquez, a health worker with Rush Community Health Center, helps two residents apply for the Chicago Resilient Communities Pilot on April 30, 2022 in Pilsen.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

A third of applicants for a citywide program that would guarantee them a small level of cash assistance for a year reported struggling with their mental health, according to a new study.

University of Chicago researchers said applicants for the program reported experiencing psychological distress at five times the rate of the general population and said they planned to continue studying whether recipients of the assistance saw improvements in their mental health over the pilot program’s duration.

The “First Look Report” interviewed and surveyed 6,237 applicants for the Resilient Communities Pilot, including 2,613 people who were among the 5,000 Chicagoans selected to receive $500 in cash assistance for 12 months in the city’s experiment to provide some residents a modest guaranteed income.

More than 176,000 residents applied for the program.

About 33% of the report’s participants said that they experienced mental health issues during more than half the month, the report from the university’s Inclusive Economy Lab found.

Misuzu Schexnider, program director for quality jobs and financial security at the Inclusive Economy Lab, said the “shocking statistic” is something they plan to keep an eye on throughout the duration of the pilot.

“We’ll really be able to see if the cash is moving the needle on psychological distress,” said Schexnider. “Is it alleviating some of the mental health pressures that people are experiencing?”

Participants in the study reported feelings including hopelessness, nervousness or restlessness, particularly those who were between the ages of 18 and 29, the study found.

Schexnider said the researchers don’t yet understand why the younger participants reported facing more mental health challenges, but noted a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated young people across the country are facing more mental health challenges.

Mary Bogle, principal research associate at the Urban Institute, said other studies of guaranteed income programs have found that people report a reduction in mental health problems like anxiety and depression when enrolled.

Anyone who’s ever fallen behind on rent could relate to how much stress it causes, especially if it creates a domino effect and leads to other struggles in people’s lives, she said.

“People are starting to define outcomes like anxiety reduction and stress relief as an important intermediate outcome on the way to longer term outcomes like employment and greater economic mobility,” Bogle said.

Other findings from the University of Chicago report included that about 27% of survey participants said that they had not been in good physical health for more than two weeks of the month, particularly by those who were 65 years or older.

Participants said their top needs included the ability to pay bills, reducing their debt and saving money, according to the report.

While this is only the first report from lab researchers, Schexnider said it’s already showing the need in communities for the assistance.

“It really illustrates the need that exists in the community, particularly the need for mental health support and resources,” Schexnider said. “And that people are really hurting and not able to thrive right now.”

Cook County is also testing a similar program, the Promise Guaranteed Income Pilot, that is providing $500 a month for two years to 3,250 city and suburban residents.

Both pilots use federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to cover the payments.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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