Editorial: Richmond’s Guaranteed Income Model Has Historical Roots | Editorial


Peggy Morris remembers the days when money determined whether she could eat healthy or had to buy fast food. She had car bill payments, other expenses, and paying off her student loan wasn’t even an option.

Originally from New York, she moved to Richmond in the 1990s to attend Virginia Union University and made the city her home. After many jobs, Morris finally found work as an early intervention assistant at Woodville Elementary School where she teaches children. It’s a rewarding job, but his income has never been enough.

Morris found a place to get help. She is one of 18 people participating in the city’s Richmond Resilience Initiative. This is a pilot program guaranteeing a monthly payment of $500 to help families who are at risk of falling “off the cliff” financially because they are not eligible for current safety net programs. Richmond residents, like Morris, aren’t exactly working poor, but close to poverty. They earn too much to qualify for public assistance, but without a living wage it’s always a juggling act and a challenge to make ends meet, let alone create wealth or have a safety net. .

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“At the heart of this project is about dignity, lifting, uplifting our residents who may be struggling with poverty,” Mayor Levar Stoney said during a recent briefing with Morris and two other recipients.

This is not a new phenomenon, but in recent years the concept of providing a source of guaranteed income at the local level has taken hold. In its incubator phase, pilot programs are multiplying in cities across the country. And maybe that’s a good thing. Richmond’s plan went from Mayors for a guaranteed incomea national coalition inspired by a concept deeply rooted in history.

Founded in June 2020 by Michael Tubbs, the national coalition grew out of a similar revenue pilot program he started when he was mayor of Stockton, California. Based in California, the MGI program brings together mayors from across the country, and pilot programs have already begun in 10 cities, including Richmond. There are plans to expand to 63, including major metropolitan areas such as Atlanta and Philadelphia. MGI hopes to use the data collected from the pilot programs to demonstrate their effectiveness, with the ultimate goal of “passing a national policy to provide the dignity and self-determination that financial security provides to all who need it.” according to its 2021 year-end report.

Richmond is the only community in Virginia participating in the MGI program. At launch in December 2020, the city announced funding from a mix of public and private sources. He used $240,000 from a donation from the Robins Foundation and a few dollars from his CARES Act allowance, says city policy adviser Sam Schwartzkopf. Richmond also scooped $500,000 from MGI (which received $15 million from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey).

The program is a two-year pilot project, with two cohorts receiving monthly supplements for two years. Schwartzkopf added via email, “The program was always intended to be a pilot project to learn more about this tool and provide evidence of success to state and national legislators.”

The first cohort of 18 people is entering its second year, but the funding is enough to help another 37 families/individuals who will also receive supplements of $500 per month for two years. But with nearly a quarter of all Richmond residents living in poverty and a disproportionately high percentage of Black and Latino families, what will be the long-term outlook for families who have come to rely on this blow of $500 extra inch per month?

The idea that citizens receive a guaranteed or universal minimum basic income from government dates back centuries, something Thomas More, a 16th-century philosopher, alluded to in his book “Utopia”. Fast forward to the 20th century, while a few economists have also pointed to its merits, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about a vision for it five decades ago in his latest book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos of Community?” In it, King defends human rights and states: “…the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a measure now widely discussed: guaranteed income.”

Former President Richard Nixon also introduced a Family Assistance Plan to provide a minimum income for poor families. It’s an idea that has been passed twice in the US House of Representatives, but never made it out of the Senate. Of course, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang has made universal basic income a campaign pledge, proposing to give every American $1,000 a month.

Offering risk-free cash to help people get out of an economic bind is also something many of us are familiar with. During the early stages of the pandemic, millions of eligible Americans received COVID-19 relief checks, including a $1,200 payment in April 2020; a payment of $600 by January 2021 and a payment of $1,400 in March of the same year.

Two years into the pandemic, with some wondering if a fourth check is coming, many Americans are still barely holding on. Dozens of businesses around Virginia are still closed, some likely for good. Some restaurants, entertainment venues and other hospitality venues are only beginning to come back to life. For most localities, it may take a few cycles for tax revenues to return to pre-pandemic levels.

The stimulus has helped alleviate factors such as food insecurity and other stressors, but a one-time payment is not quite the same as an ongoing guaranteed source of income.

What are the long-term plans for a universal basic income? Anyone can guess at this point, but creating a federal guaranteed income program is something people are talking about. Last year, Bloomberg CityLab reported on a national-level proposal recently published by the New York-based New School’s Institute on Race and Political Economy.

It’s a complicated plan that relies on other benefits, such as the earned income tax credit, but the federal concept of universal basic income may soon have its day.

As for Richmond and other cities testing a guaranteed income plan and gathering data to gauge its effectiveness, there’s no better time to revive a monetary concept with historical context that can help so many.

Lisa Vernon Sparks is co-editor of Opinions. Contact her at: lver[email protected]


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