Chicago Paid Some Citizens $500 a Month, No Strings Attached. Here's What Happened Next.
Lori Lightfoot's administration chose 5,000 people to receive the guaranteed income for a year.
Chicago and its neighboring suburbs have started giving a group of residents $500 a month, no strings attached. It's "the largest experiment of its kind in the nation," the New York Times recently reported. In August, Mayor Lori Lightfoot's administration chose 5,000 people to participate in a program to receive the guaranteed income for a year. And 3,250 residents of surrounding Cook County started receiving $500 checks in December. Read on to find out more, including where the money's coming from, what officials hope to accomplish with the plan, what both sides of the political aisle have to say about the experiment, and how it's been going so far.
What the Programs Are
The Chicago program, known as the Resilient Communities Pilot, has $31.5 million in funds; the Cook County program has $42 million. Both are financed by the American Rescue Plan, which sent pandemic relief funds to local communities, and administered by GiveDirectly, a group previously known for helping impoverished people in developing nations. Both programs are being studied by scientists at the University of Chicago. Individuals were invited to apply for the programs. The income cutoff was 250 percent of the federal poverty level—$36,450 a year for an individual, $75,000 for a family of four—although certain groups (the unhoused, veterans, and caregivers) were favored for acceptance, the Times reported. More than 176,000 Chicagoans applied in just three weeks.
Similar Programs Sprouting Up Nationwide
These guaranteed income programs are spreading across the country. Since 2020, more than 50 cities have implemented them; Los Angeles currently offers one of the largest. This month, officials at the National Association of Counties conference announced another slate of county-level guaranteed income programs. "The idea is that the best way to close the wealth gap and give people the opportunity to build a more stable life is to provide unrestricted cash payments to some of the most vulnerable Americans," the Times explains. The concept gained traction after 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang proposed a $1,000-a-month guaranteed income. They picked up speed during the pandemic, when many, if not most, Americans needed a lifeline to pay their bills.
What Conservatives Say
"There's no indication that I see that the American public thinks what we really need is more aid to people who choose not to work," Robert Rector, a conservative public assistance expert at the Heritage Foundation, told the Times. He argues that previous cash giveaways—including the "negative income tax" program for the poor in the 1970s—had detrimental effects on employment and marriage that lingered for years after those programs ended. In Rector's view, guaranteed basic income will keep people who can work "in extended adolescence, and it's really good if you could do it with a boatload of free federal money," he said. He warns those programs will lead to the desire for a "post-work economy."
What Progressives Say
"This was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for us to be bold and innovative," said Brandie Knazze, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. Social service programs are burdened by bureaucracy. Advocates of guaranteed income say the cash deposits deliver help directly to the people who need it and can restore recipients' faith that government can work effectively. But some liberal economists also criticize the programs. A 2019 report by European labor unions warned that guaranteed income programs in a developed economy might endanger targeted social services, such as health care, child care, and education.
What a Recipient Says
Chicago resident Christopher Ellington's photography business crashed in 2020 when the COVID pandemic shut down public life. In March 2021, he was shot in the head twice by a drive-by shooter, leaving him permanently blind. He is currently receiving the monthly $500 checks, which are not taxable and directly boost his income. "It completely transformed my view of the government, not only in Chicago but nationally," he told the Times. "It gave me an inkling of hope that things are happening."