Peggy Morris remembers when money determined if she could eat healthy or had to buy fast food. She had car note 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 eventually found work as an early intervention assistant at Woodville Elementary School where she tutors children. It’s a rewarding job, but her income never was quite enough.
Morris found a place to get help. She is among 18 individuals participating in the city’s Richmond Resilience Initiative. It is a pilot program guaranteeing a $500 monthly payment to help families who are in danger of falling of “the cliff”financially because they are ineligible for current safety net programs. Richmonders like Morris, are not exactly the working poor but come close to being in poverty. They earn too much to qualify for public assistance, yet without a living wage it’s still a juggling act and a challenge to make ends meet, let alone to build any wealth or have a safety net.
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“At its core this project is about dignity, about lifting, about elevating our residents that may be having some challenges with poverty,” Mayor Levar Stoney said during a recent info session with Morris and two other recipients.
It’s not a new phenomenon, but in recent years the concept of providing a guaranteed income source on the local level has caught on. In its incubator phase, pilot programs are cropping up around cities nationally. And maybe that’s a good thing. Richmond’s plan evolved from Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a national coalition that took its cues from a concept that has deep roots in history.
Founded in June 2020 by Michael Tubbs, the national coalition stems from a similar income pilot program he launched when he was mayor of Stockton, California. Based in California, the MGI program brings mayors from around the country and pilot programs already have begun in 10 cities, including Richmond. There are plans to expand to as many as 63, including major metro areas such as Atlanta and Philadelphia. MGI hopes to use the data harvested from the pilot programs to demonstrate their efficacy, with an ultimate goal of “passing a national policy to offer the dignity and self-determination financial security affords to all who need it,” according to its 2021 end-of-year report.
Richmond is the only Virginia locality participating in the MGI program. At the launch in December 2020, the city announced funding coming from a mix of public and private sources. It used $240,000 tallied from a Robins Foundation donation and some dollars from its CARES Act allotment, says Sam Schwartzkopf, a policy advisor with the city. Richmond also picked up $500,000 from MGI (which received $15 million from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey).
The program is a two-year pilot, with two cohorts that will receive two-years worth of monthly supplements. Schwartzkopf added via email, “The program has always been intended to be a pilot to learn more about this tool and provide evidence of success to state and national lawmakers.”
The first cohort of 18 is entering its second year, but there is enough funding to help another 37 families/individuals who also will receive two years’ worth of $500-per-month supplements. But with nearly a quarter of all Richmonders living in poverty and a hefty percentage who are disproportionately Black and Latinx families, what will the long-term outlook be for families who have come to rely on that additional $500-per-month boost?
The idea of citizens receiving a guaranteed minimum or universal basic income from government goes back centuries, something Thomas More, a 16th century philosopher, discussed in his book “Utopia.” Fast forward to the 20th century, while a few economists also stressed its merits, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about a vision for it five decades ago in his final book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos of Community?” In it, King advocates for human rights and says “ … the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
Former President Richard Nixon also pitched a family assistance plan to provide a minimum income to poor families. It’s an idea that passed twice in the U. S. House of Representatives, but it never made it out of the Senate. Of course former presidential candidate Andrew Yang made basic universal income a campaign pledge, proposing to give every American $1,000 a month.
Offering risk-free money to help folks out of an economic bind is something many of us are quite familiar with, as well. During the early phases of the pandemic, millions of Americans who were eligible received COVID-19 relief checks, including a $1,200 payment in April 2020; a $600 payment by January 2021 and a $1,400 payment in March that same year.
Two years since the pandemic’s start, with some wondering if a fourth check is coming, many Americans still are barely hanging on. Dozens of businesses around Virginia still are shuttered, some probably for good. Some restaurants, entertainment and other hospitality venues are only beginning to creep back to life. For most localities it may take a couple cycles for tax revenue to tick back up to prepandemic levels.
The stimulus helped to ease things such as food insecurity and other stressors, but a one-time payout is not quite the same as a continuous guaranteed income source.
What are long-term plans for a universal basic income? It’s anyone’s guess at this point, but creating a federal guaranteed income program is something people are talking about. Last year, Bloomberg CityLab reported on national-level proposal recently published by the New School’s Institute on Race and Political Economy, based in New York.
It’s a complicated plan that relies on other benefits, such as the earned income tax credit, but the federal universal basic income concept soon may have its day.
As for Richmond and other cities testing out a guaranteed income plan and gathering data to assess its efficacy, there is no better time to revive a monetary concept with historic context that can assis so many.
Lisa Vernon Sparks is Opinions co-editor. Contact her at: [email protected]