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Citing legal doubts, Gainey scraps Pittsburgh's guaranteed income program

Ed Gainey, Democratic candidate for Pittsburgh mayor, talks with reporters after voting in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.
Gene J. Puskar
Ed Gainey, Democratic candidate for Pittsburgh mayor, talks with reporters after voting in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

Chelsea Richie has no trouble thinking up ways an extra $500 a month could help her.

The cash "would help me with my bills and it would also help me supplement daycare costs for both my kids," she said. "I would like to go to school at night, and it would be a huge relief for me financially to not have to rob Peter to pay Paul, as my grandmother would say."

The 27-year-old mother of two hoped for a chance for that kind of aid through "Assured Cash Experiment PGH," a guaranteed-income pilot program proposed by former Mayor Bill Peduto. But Mayor Ed Gainey's administration now says the proposal is dead, due to concerns about its viability.

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"The pilot program is not moving forward," Gainey spokesperson Maria Montano said in an emailed statement. "After careful review, the way the program was designed by the previous administration made it ineligible for the federal ARPA funds. The elimination of key funding further reduced the reach of the program and we made the decision to end it."

As Peduto conceived the idea, the city would provide 200 households in the city with $500 a month put on a debit card for two years. While the city did not begin formally recruiting applicants, the idea was to prioritize Black women-led households, like Richie's.

The approach, sometimes called "universal basic income"has become increasingly popular as income disparities and housing costs have soared in cities nationwide.

Funding for the program would have come from two sources: President Biden's COVID-relief program, the American Rescue Plan, and the money provided by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to a national organization known as Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. The money would be distributed by OnePGH, a separate nonprofit Peduto conceived of as a vehicle for raising and spending non-tax revenue for social goods.

City Council passed a bill to allow the program to move forward last fall. But by that point, Peduto was a lame duck, having been defeated by Gainey in the Democratic primary, and little progress appears to have been made since then. (Richie called the city at around that time to sign up, but was directed to a program that helped provide financial planning.)

City Controller Michael Lamb said in order for there to be a transfer to OnePGH, there had to be a cooperative agreement with the entity, and his office never saw one.

"I don't know where that contract is, we haven't seen it," he said. "City Council has approved the appropriation but no money has been forwarded to it."

Gainey, meanwhile, has expressed doubts about the program.

"We're assessing it from the legality of it to the finances of it, we're assessing everything," he told WESA's The Confluence last week. Asked whether he supported the concept itself, Gainey said, "Let us continue to look into it before I make any comments on that."

The federal government did place limits on how ARP funds could be used, though Peduto was not alone in planning to use them for a guaranteed income program. A spokesperson for Mayors for a Guaranteed Income said 20 cities nationwide were using the money for the purpose: They reportedly include Newark, NJ and Chicago.

But the mayors' group also said that its own funds had been withdrawn from Pittsburgh, because Gainey had not continued Peduto's membership with it.

Montano confirmed that Gainey hadn't joined the organization, and that "the money for this program has been returned to them."

But Montano stressed that Black women — the population the income program most hoped to serve — would remain a focus for the administration.

"We are focused on actionable and sustainable solutions that address the systemic issues impacting the lives and well-being of Black women in our city," she said. She noted that Gainey had put Black women in key positions of authority within his administration, and said, "We are currently working to convene a meeting with Black women leaders from all across the City to talk about our path forward."

The fate of the program also raises questions about the future of OnePGH itself, about which little has been said since Peduto announced a year ago that local nonprofits had earmarked $115 million for programs under its auspices.

There have long been concerns about the slow pace of progress made by the venture, as well as worries about a lack of transparency. Peduto envisioned it as a way for tax-exempt employers and others to funding public goods without necessarily contributing to the city's tax coffers. But Lamb said he worried about public dollars being shunted into an outside agency. (The law bars the city from distributing the money directly to residents itself.)

"That's not what we envisioned," Lamb said.

Montano said the Gainey administration is "reviewing and assessing OnePGH to see if or how we may use the nonprofit moving forward" Montano said. She said Gainey had named Deputy Chief of Staff Felicity Williams and Director of City Planning Karen Abrams to the OnePGH board.

But for her part, Richie said she still thought a guaranteed income program could help working single mothers like her.

"It would help a lot of people get back on their feet and have a steady life instead of always struggling," she said.