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Chicago passes guaranteed income program with funds from American Rescue Plan

NOEL KING, HOST:

Chicago just became the latest city to approve a guaranteed basic income program for some of its poorest residents. The idea of basic income has been around for a while, but the pandemic brought it a lot of new attention. And now dozens of U.S. cities are exploring cash payment programs to help people in need. From member station WBEZ, Esther Yoon-Ji Kang reports.

ESTHER YOON-JI KANG, BYLINE: With this new pilot program, 5,000 low-income residents here will get $500 a month, with no strings attached, for one year. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot calls the guaranteed income pilot one of the highlights of her budget. And she says while it may be controversial for some, it's good policy.

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LORI LIGHTFOOT: Of course we need to teach people how to fish. But right now, in this moment, with so many people suffering, in pain and worried about financial ruin, this is what we must do to make sure that these families don't slip into the abyss.

KANG: The program will cost about $31 million and come out of the nearly 2 billion Chicago got in federal pandemic relief aid. Alderman Scott Waguespack says the cash assistance program isn't a new idea, but it's a good one.

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SCOTT WAGUESPACK: The guaranteed income here is not much unlike child tax credits or stimulus checks or PPE funds. What we hope to see is that those funds go to those people who need it the most in our city.

KANG: Natalie Foster leads the nonprofit Economic Security Project and says the concept of giving people money with no conditions was once considered radical, but the pandemic changed all that.

NATALIE FOSTER: It became clear that cash could provide support to families even when everything was changing around them.

KANG: And a number of cities are embracing the concept to help combat poverty, cities like Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Denver, Stockton and Newark. Some critics worry that the programs discourage people from working at a time when a record number of jobs are going unfilled. But Foster says the data show otherwise.

FOSTER: Study after study show people continue to work alongside income supports like a guaranteed income program.

KANG: One study showed those receiving checks found full-time work at double the rate. The details of Chicago's program still need to be fleshed out, including who will be eligible for the monthly payments.

For NPR News, I'm Esther Yoon-Ji Kang in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on the Race, Class and Communities desk. Previously, she was the communications manager for the University of Chicago Institute of Politics (IOP). Before her work with the IOP, Esther was an editor at Chicago magazine, where she reported, wrote, edited, photographed, designed and produced award-winning stories for the website and print magazine. Prior to Chicago magazine, she worked as a breaking news producer for chicagotribune.com, latimes.com and other Tribune Company news sites. Aside from her work on the Web, Esther has covered the Chicago Public Schools and juvenile court beats and has written for various publications. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwestern University and has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in the journalism school.