This article is part of our 2020 contribution to the DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local newsrooms. The collective works will be published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press.
As a coalition of city leaders around the country gathers to support a guaranteed income, D.C. is still struggling to define what its own program could look like.
A guaranteed income is a monthly cash payment made directly to any citizen who qualifies with no strings attached. Though it is similar in concept to a universal basic income, it is normally targeted to low-income residents, rather than all residents.
Since June, 25 mayors from across the country have united to call for a guaranteed income at the federal level and have begun studying programs in their cities through Mayors for a Guaranteed Income (MGI). Following the success of Stockton, California’s guaranteed income program, its mayor, Michael Tubbs, founded the organization and began recruiting fellow mayors to support similar models.
Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has not signed on and her office did not respond to requests to comment.
“The beginning and end of this for me is that the impacts of poverty in my community and across the country are so devastating to our communities and to our residents that we have to find some way to lift people up and provide them with the income that they need,” said Satya Rhodes-Conway, mayor of Madison, Wis., at a virtual event held by MGI and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. Madison is currently exploring starting its first guaranteed income pilot program.
The coalition argues a targeted program can be a tool for economic, racial, and gender equality as it will protect a city’s most vulnerable residents. The money, they say, can supplement current social safety programs and earned income and guarantees an income floor for everyone. Unlike other social programs, it allows residents to choose what they need to spend the money on.
“During COVID-19 it became incredibly clear that a guaranteed income was a lifeline for so many of our residents,” Tubbs said at the virtual event, pointing out that unemployment and other assistance programs can often take two or three months to distribute benefits. “You have to wait, and your bills don’t wait with that waiting period.”
Though the details of a guaranteed income, including how much it is monthly, differ, most current or proposed programs follow the same model as the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), where an amount of cash, in this case $500, is given to individuals or families monthly. According to Tubbs, the money they receive is spent on necessities, and nearly 50% is spent on food.
“I am able to buy better things, like fruit, which is very high in cost,” one resident, Laura Kidd Plummer, said in a press release from SEED.
The concept of a guaranteed income is picking up speed. In 2016, then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton almost ran on a platform including UBI, though she said later “we couldn’t make the numbers work.” This election cycle, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s campaign was defined by his support of UBI. Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, was against the concept in 2017, but recently put out a plan for a guaranteed income of $3,000 annually for parents with children. However, most of the discussion on a national level has examined universal programs, rather than the targeted ones MGI supports.
Guaranteed income in D.C.
The idea of a guaranteed income in the District was floated in a 2018 D.C. Council report on the feasibility of providing a minimum income for residents. The report found that most low-income households in the District struggle to make ends meet without any additional programs.
“Fifteen dollars an hour is clearly not enough to even make your basic needs met in the District of Columbia,” At-large Councilmember David Grosso said of the findings.
Though the minimum wage in the District is currently $15 per hour, a single adult would need to make at least $17.78 to meet all basic needs, the report concluded, and an adult with one child would need to make $31.79. The report also found that while a single adult with a child, if they received all benefits they were eligible for, could meet all their basic needs, eligibility did not mean they were guaranteed that benefit. Single adults who receive all the benefits they are eligible for are still not able to meet their basic needs.
The proposals considered by the District in the 2018 report would ensure households make a certain percent of the federal poverty level, making up any difference between their current income and the minimum amount.
According to Grosso, while the report encouraged councilmembers to think about ways to improve the social safety net in the District, the price tag kept them from leaping at a guaranteed income. “In the end, I think we were all a little bit sticker-shocked by how much it would cost,” Grosso said.
The less ambitious proposal called for the government to guarantee an income of 100% of the federal poverty level, or $12,760 for an individual and $26,200 for a family of four. This proposal was projected to decrease new jobs added by between 1,600 to 3,000 jobs and projected GDP growth by $99 million to $185 million over the next first 10 years of the program. Depending on whether it was implemented via a negative income tax or direct cash payments, it would cost between $380 million and $710 million annually, with the negative income tax being the cheaper option.
The more ambitious proposal calls for a guaranteed minimum income of 450% of the federal poverty level, which is approximately D.C.’s cost of living. Under this proposal, an individual would be guaranteed to make $57,420 and a family of four would be guaranteed to make $117,900. This proposal was projected to decrease jobs in the District by over 100,000 and increase the money the district spends on local programs by $7 billion to $9 billion each year.
The Budget Office, which prepared the report, recommended the Council decide on a specific proposal, but did not say the general idea was out of the question. Grosso pointed out some of the costs would be offset by lower enrollment in other benefits programs. However, this lower enrollment could present yet another concern, if an increase in income erases eligibility for other benefits.
The possibility is something lawmakers should consider, according to Tazra Mitchell of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “We have to make sure there are no unintentional harsh effects of pushing people off of SNAP or TANF if they’re accessing a guaranteed income,” she said.
Partially in response to this need, a group of non-profit organizations joined together to create a cash and food assistance program in Ward 8 called “THRIVE East of the River.” Through this program, which is fundraising its budget, 500 families are receiving $1,100 a month for five months, plus groceries and dry goods. This pilot could be an indicator for what future guaranteed income programs could look like in the District, according to Mitchell. “THRIVE is going to give us a lot of information about how to do that well,” she said.
Since 2018, Grosso said, conversations have continued about a guaranteed income program, but have not resulted in a lot of movement, especially given the budget it would require. Though Grosso would like to speed those conversations up, in the meantime he thinks enrolling citizens in social safety net programs and limiting barriers to access those programs can go a long way to making up the difference. To Grosso’s knowledge, Bowser has not looked into the issue.