Illinois County Just Launched The Nation’s Largest Guaranteed Income Program

Cook County will send up to 3,250 eligible residents $500 a month in cash assistance for two years, becoming a leader in the movement for universal basic income.
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The second-largest county in the U.S. just launched what officials say is the biggest guaranteed basic income pilot program in the country, becoming a leader in the national movement toward universal basic income.

The Cook County Promise Guaranteed Income Pilot will send up to 3,250 eligible residents $500 per month in cash assistance for two years. Residents in the county, which includes Chicago, can begin applying for the program starting Thursday through Oct. 21, and payments are anticipated to begin in December.

Applicants must live in Cook County, be at least 18 years old, not be participating in another guaranteed income program, and have a household income at or below 250% of the federal poverty level. People will not be asked to verify citizenship or immigration status in the application.

“After months of hard work, Cook County is proud to be launching the application portal for the largest publicly-funded guaranteed income pilot in American history,” county Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in a statement, adding that her office estimates over a third of county residents are eligible to apply. Preckwinkle said she hopes to make the program permanent in the coming years.

The $42 million program is fully funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, which the White House passed in order to provide relief to those who were directly impacted by the pandemic. Preckwinkle said the county plans to support the program beyond the pilot phase through its own budget as well as philanthropic support.

“Historically, both public and private institutions have been unwilling to directly invest in low- and moderate-income people without significant restrictions in place. This is a misconception and terrible bias in which past governments have taken part,” the county board president tweeted.

“Rather, decades of research show that people spend cash benefits wisely, leading to more financial stability as well as improved physical, emotional and social outcomes.”

Calls for universal basic income have grown nationwide over the years. Tech billionaires have spoken about UBI acting as a buffer against increased automation, and businessman Andrew Yang campaigned for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination by saying every American should receive $1,000 a month. The idea was considered far-fetched by many officials until the pandemic hit and revealed how much a person’s basic needs are dependent on job security and climate safety.

Stockton, California, had been running a guaranteed income program since 2019, giving $500 a month no-strings-attached to 125 people who earn below the city’s median income. The program has shown that 40% of the money was spent on food, 12% on utility bills, 9% on car-related expenses, and the rest on things like health insurance, clothes and recreation.

The program showed that UBI was not only necessary, but that giving low-income families guaranteed income directly helps the economy. The mayor who led the Stockton program said in 2020 that he believes critics who think people are poor because of bad decisions are “uncomfortable giving other people ― mainly people of color, Black people ― agency in money-making decisions.”

“Guaranteed Income programs hold promise for improving economic mobility and promoting racial equity,” Carmelo Barbaro, executive director of University of Chicago’s Inclusive Economy Lab, said in a statement. “To expand these programs locally and nationally we need to generate evidence about the most effective ways to distribute dollars and how families leverage these programs to achieve their goals.”

The lab is teaming up with the university’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice to research and assess the pilot program as it continues, according to the county.

The Cook County program comes as the city of Chicago begins sending out $500 checks to 5,000 families selected for its own cash assistance program. The Chicago Resilient Communities Pilot is a $31.5 million commitment from the city’s Department of Family and Support Services as part of an effort to help residents recover economically from the pandemic.

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