Guaranteed income works; it’s time to go from pilot to permanent

Everyone, regardless of race or immigration status, should be able to meet their basic needs. That’s the premise behind guaranteed income programs, which supplement income through no-strings-attached money. Unlike Medicaid and other federal benefits, these programs offer regular, direct cash payments.

This is not a new idea. In his book Where Do We Go From Here?, Martin Luther King, Jr. championed guaranteed income as a means to abolish poverty and achieve Black liberation. Once considered radical, guaranteed income has become a reality in recent years. Since the pandemic, communities have launched over 100 pilots across the country. Most rely on COVID relief money to offer direct cash assistance.

The Shriver Center on Poverty Law has worked extensively on two successful programs in Illinois. A two-year pilot in Cook County currently sends $500 monthly checks to over 3,000 families. The other, a one-year program in Chicago, ended last year and gave $500 checks to 5,000 families, making it the country’s largest pilot in terms of number of recipients.

We know guaranteed income works. A growing body of research shows that recipients use the money on basics like housing, food, and utility bills. The extra cash reduces stress and helps maintain steady employment. A Shriver Center report, Guaranteed Income: States Lead the Way in Reimagining the Social Safety Net, found that direct cash assistance can be an effective tool to address racial income disparities. Because guaranteed income is targeted to communities with the greatest need, most recipients are people of color, who experience higher rates of poverty due to both historical and ongoing systemic racism.

Now it’s time to scale these programs. As COVID-era funding comes to a close, state and local governments must find new revenue sources. The money for permanent guaranteed income programs is there if the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes. Although legislators cut taxes for high-income earners and corporations — free giveaways that would otherwise fund public services — money for poverty-reduction programs is a frequent target of cuts. To go from pilot to permanent, we must challenge the scarcity mindset and confront extreme wealth inequality. This will require a coordinated campaign to build narrative and political power.

As we push to make direct cash assistance permanent, advocates must spread best practices. “Our top priority is to ensure recipients of guaranteed income, folks with very limited financial means, don’t lose other economic supports,” said Nolan Downey, a staff attorney with the Shriver Center’s economic justice team. Downey has consulted with programs across the country, including in California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Ohio, on how to safeguard recipients’ access to Medicaid and other essential benefits including food and housing assistance. The Shriver Center has also helped pass legislation in Cook County that protects guaranteed income recipients’ access to other public benefits — to the extent allowed by federal law.

Downey sees a path to a statewide guaranteed income program in Illinois, while strengthening other direct cash policies. This year, the Shriver Center is championing a bill in Springfield that would create a new child tax credit. The proposal would put additional cash into the hands of families with low income that have children, regardless of immigration status.

The implementation of a child tax credit in Illinois would build a foundation of support around direct cash programs like guaranteed income. We’ll need to leverage that momentum in the coming fight for a permanent guaranteed income program. The Shriver Center is committed to working with its grassroots, advocacy, and base-building partners to coalesce around a specific long-term vision for Illinois. We intend to put a bill forward in time for 2025’s spring legislative session.

The Shriver Center’s advocacy isn’t limited to Illinois. We’ll continue to support the guaranteed income movement through the Legal Impact Network, a Shriver Center-led collective of state-based organizations focused on ending poverty and advancing racial justice. Ultimately, the long-term goal for the Shriver Center and the broader movement is to create the political will to ensure dignity for all Americans through a federally-funded guaranteed income program.

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Systemic inequities and the legacy of structural racism make it harder for low-income people and people of color to achieve financial stability.

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