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Support For Guaranteed Income Programs Grows Due To Pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The idea of giving Americans cash without conditions once seemed radical. The pandemic changed that. Income inequality has pushed the concept of a guaranteed income into the mainstream. In recent months, nearly two dozen American cities have tried this. The largest is Los Angeles, where Eric Garcetti is mayor.

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ERIC GARCETTI: We have budgeted $24 million to provide $1,000 a month to 2,000 households for an entire year, no questions asked, wherever poverty lives in our city.

INSKEEP: Lily Jamali of KQED has more on the effort to turn a formerly fringe concept into federal policy.

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: The pandemic hit America's lowest wage workers hard, people working in restaurants, hotels and shops. Poverty has risen sharply. Aisha Nyandoro is the executive director of Springboard to Opportunities, home to a guaranteed income project in Jackson, Miss.

AISHA NYANDORO: Unfortunately, without COVID and without the pandemic and the economic downturn, I don't know if we would be having the conversations with the intensity that we are regarding guaranteed income. But we are. And so we'll take it.

JAMALI: Nyandoro's program started way before the pandemic in 2018. It targeted moms like Tia Cunningham (ph), who got the call three years ago that said...

TIA CUNNINGHAM: I have a late Christmas present for you. Do you want it? And I was like, what is it? And she was like, you have been selected. I was like, what?

JAMALI: That late Christmas present was $1,000 each month for a year. Cash payments with no strings attached. The mother of three says the money got her out of subsidized housing and helped her save for a down payment. She moved into a new house in 2019. When the pandemic hit, she had some security.

CUNNINGHAM: I did a lot. I put it to good use. I did a whole lot.

JAMALI: The Jackson, Miss., project started with just 20 moms. Others that have followed are larger. They're mostly funded by philanthropists. Los Angeles stands out because it'll use public money. But advocates have even more ambitious plans. They want this French concept to go universal, a guaranteed payment to every American family. Andrew Yang, a Democratic candidate for New York City mayor, made it the centerpiece of his last campaign for president.

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ANDREW YANG: I want to give every American $1,000 a month.

ISABEL SAWHILL: He did a really good job of getting the idea out there and getting people very interested in it.

JAMALI: That's Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution. She sees this current push as a reaction to policies that largely ended welfare under President Clinton. Those policies cut off cash payments to people who didn't have jobs, no matter how poor they were. The idea was to incentivize work. Sawhill served on Clinton's welfare task force and traveled the country to meet with recipients.

SAWHILL: One of the things that surprised me is that a lot of welfare moms really don't like welfare. It's not their first choice. They'd much rather be working.

JAMALI: Another problem with welfare, it stigmatized the people who received it. Critics called them welfare queens who took advantage of free money. Here's Ronald Reagan in a 1976 radio address.

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RONALD REAGAN: In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record. She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans' benefits for four nonexistent deceased veterans husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.

JAMALI: Now, more than four decades later, poverty has endured. Mayors from Richmond, Va., to Oakland, Calif., see guaranteed income projects as a way to address it. A recent project in Stockton, Calif., challenged the belief that free money discourages work. After a year, it showed full-time employment actually rose 12 percentage points among recipients. And a lot of it was spent on food and bills. But it included just 125 people and ran for two years. Scott Winship of the conservative American Enterprise Institute isn't convinced.

SCOTT WINSHIP: The kinds of concerns that most conservatives have about the impact on work are not going to typically show up one year into the experiment. They're going to show up five years into the experiment, 10 years into the experiment.

JAMALI: Whether detractors like it or not, elements of the universal basic income concept may already be shaping federal policy. President Biden has set out an ambitious agenda of cradle-to-grave support for a wider group of people, more generous tax credits for parents, free community college, guaranteed child care, a big expansion of the safety net that would come with a giant price tag and no work requirements. Back in Mississippi, Tia Cunningham says the benefits from the cash payments she got for just one year have lasted.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. This the bedroom. And this is the kitchen.

JAMALI: It didn't just help Cunningham buy her first house, she's kept her job. But that extra money gave her a sound financial footing to get through a pandemic that has devastated so many.

For NPR News, I'm Lily Jamali. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.