200 Pittsburghers Will Start To Get $500 In Guaranteed Monthly Income By End Of Year

Sep 17, 2020

Two hundred Pittsburgh households will soon get an extra $500 a month as part of a two-year foray into offering residents a guaranteed income. On a call with leaders from other cities Wednesday, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said the city will start to make the payments later this year as part of a pilot program funded by philanthropic donors.

He said the aid will go to very low-income families, earning 50 percent or less than the area median income, and predicted that it will directly help to address their needs.

“Many times we talk about the symptoms of poverty … instead of getting to the core root of the problem, which is poverty itself,” the mayor said.

He added that half of the funding will be reserved for households run by Black women.

“Systemic racism is real in the city of Pittsburgh. It is quantified. And through our Gender Equity Commission, we have found that it is even worse when you are a female,” said Peduto, alluding to a study the commission published in 2019. The research found that health and economic disparities between Black and white people are far worse in Pittsburgh than elsewhere in the country.

Peduto said the city will evaluate whether the extra $500 in monthly income mitigates those imbalances and improves the well-being of participating families.

City spokesperson Molly Onufer said the Mayor's Office of Equity will lead the entire initiative and work with the Gender Equity Commission and the city’s Financial Empowerment Centers to recruit participants and research the program’s impact.

The concept of a guaranteed minimum income might seem like a radical idea. It failed to gain traction when Democrat Andrew Yang, perhaps its best-known advocate in the U.S., made it a central focus in his run for president this year. But amid the economic turmoil caused by COVID-19, Peduto is not the only elected official taking the idea seriously.

In fact, his effort in Pittsburgh is part of a new national initiative, called Mayors for Guaranteed Income, which includes two dozen other city leaders. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey committed $3 million to the coalition in July, and could help to bankroll Pittsburgh’s pilot. Onufer said that while the city has submitted a proposal to Dorsey, it is also “working with other philanthropic groups who have shown interest in the program.”

Representing cities from Los Angeles to Jackson, Miss. and Hudson, N.Y., the mayors in the guaranteed-income group view the aid as a potentially crucial support for communities of color and poor people, who have been hardest hit by the pandemic. All of the participating cities plan to launch programs similar to Pittsburgh’s.

Philadelphia is one of them. Drawing on his city’s experience distributing $800 in coronavirus relief money to households whose average annual income totaled less than $20,000 a year, Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney predicted that recipients of guaranteed income will use the assistance to pay for basic necessities.

“We were able to make an immediate impact on their lives,” Kenney said of the city’s COVID relief payments. “We have seen that when given the flexibility to make their own decisions about how to spend cash relief, folks are making decisions based on what was most urgent for their families –  everything from rent, utilities to groceries and gas.”

Kenney said a continuous benefit like guaranteed income offers an even better model.

“For many, emergency relief comes too late. If we continue to wait until we’re in a national emergency to provide people with the support they need, we are flirting again with disaster,” Kenney said.

Kenney acknowledged that opponents criticize guaranteed income as a move toward socialism. But Stockton, Calif., Mayor Michael Tubbs disputed the notion that $500 monthly payments will disincentivize people from working. A similar program in Finland had no effect on employment, although it actually aimed to get jobless people back to work.

Stockton launched its own guaranteed income pilot, which pays $500 a month, a year and a half ago, and Tubbs founded Mayors for Guaranteed Income.

“The issue is not [that] people aren’t working. It’s that work isn’t paying,” he said. “Our economy is so brutal that it robs people of humanity. We’ve heard from countless residents who said being in the program allows them to breathe, allows them to feel less anxious, allows them to spend more time with their kids, allows them to contribute more to their communities.”