Unconditional cash assistance is having a moment.
Even before the pandemic, there was growing recognition that our heavily work-conditioned safety net is inadequate.
It was especially prone to fail households during economic downturns, exactly when aid is most needed. And it was hamstrung by the “administrative burden” of eligibility verifications, burdens which disproportionately fall on African-American and Latino families.
Then, the economic turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it an explosion of activity and interest in guaranteed income across the country, including Richmond.
But while it’s clear that something has shifted in the U.S. political debate, the work of long-term policy change will require grassroots mobilization — starting at the city and community level and led by beneficiaries and their communities.
Cash assistance has become a mainstream idea: The Democratic Party embraced a fully refundable and unconditional Child Tax Credit as a central anti-poverty strategy, mimicking successful credits and allowances implemented in Canada, Great Britain and other countries.
The federal response to the pandemic included several rounds of stimulus checks (in addition to a pilot Child Tax Credit expansion). States such as Vermont and New Jersey have started their own unconditional child allowance expansions.
More than 100 “guaranteed income” pilots have emerged in cities and counties nationwide to provide life-changing, direct assistance to over 38,000 households combined.
In Richmond, the city teamed with nonprofits to initially provide 18 households with $500 a month for two years through December 2022. Since then, a fresh 46 households have been enrolled through 2024. A separate program is being set up to benefit 30 households with people who have been released from jails and prisons.
Despite all this, Congress failed to extend the expanded federal child tax credit.
It is time to begin the work to transform the local pilot efforts into a permanent change at the state and federal level, particularly as federal COVID-19 relief money dries up.
There are models of activism to be found already. One example is Georgia’s In Her Hands initiative that now is working to turn a cash program that began in Atlanta into a statewide program. The state is now engaged through its Resilience and Opportunity fund in expanding the initiative.
Advocates and researchers can help by spotlighting the deficiencies of the current programs that could be collapsed to provide funding for guaranteed income.And current recipients should share their stories about the importance and impact of having an income floor.
Through these stories, city, county and state-based pilots can combat pernicious and cynical myths about working-class families — and about people of color in particular.
Here in Richmond, Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s administration should consider helping recipients and advocates organize and advocate for a statewide program that provides a fuller safety net as part of creating momentum for a national guaranteed income program.
Cash assistance is better for families and individuals and can help reduce government bureaucracy that more focused on filling out forms than serving people. The pilot cash assistance programs show this idea can and does work, that the money households receive is well spent, that it creates a win for ordinary working people and their families, taxpayers and others with a stake and provides an economic boost for the economy.
This is the way to go if we are ever to transform our nation’s anti-poverty work from a handout to a hand up.