Boulder continuing work on guaranteed income pilot program

May 28—When 125 low-income Stockton, Calif. residents were given $500 a month, no strings attached, they ended the two-year program with more full-time employment, more food security and less depression, anxiety and fatigue.

The Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration project, started in 2019 by former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, was the first mayor-led guaranteed income project in the country.

Boulder is hopeful that the guaranteed income pilot program it’s currently embarking on will prove just as successful in reducing poverty, increasing housing and food security, improving mental health and more.

Such a program, which Boulder City Council discussed in a study session on Tuesday, would provide a flexible, regular cash payment to select low-income residents in Boulder. People could use the money without the restrictions outlined in many assistance programs.

The program isn’t meant to be long-term support but instead provides cash assistance to people for a specified amount of time.

Boulder and its nonprofit partners offer a variety of programs, including rental, food and health care assistance. Some City Council members questioned whether it would make more sense to put the $3 million necessary for the guaranteed income pilot program toward already existing programs.

“What’s challenging about being low income is for each one of those programs (to) have to continually prove that you’re poor. It takes a lot of time. It takes paperwork,” Director of Housing and Human Services Kurt Firnhaber said.

“I think the guaranteed income, or the new name that we’ll give it, is really meant to take a different approach … one where we don’t decide how people need to be assisted and make decisions for people,” he added.

Program on the table since February

Results from Stockton indicate that participants consistently spent the money on food, groceries and household goods, utilities and auto repair.

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The idea for the program has been officially considered since February when Boulder City Council agreed to spend $250,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay for the exploration phase of the pilot program. City staff says it will return to the Council later this year to request another $2.75 million that can be used to begin administering payments to participants.

The city expects to issue a request for proposal to find a project manager to guide the program in June. It would spend July and August recruiting partners and seating a community task force.

Community engagement, project design and more would happen September through November with applications opening and selection occurring as soon as late this year or early next.

Boulder argues the program is perhaps uniquely fit for the criteria it’s set for ARPA funds. According to information presented Tuesday, the guaranteed income pilot program would, among other things, advance Boulder’s economic mobility, racial equity, sustainability and resilience goals while leveraging community engagement and addressing the need exacerbated by the pandemic.

The city used its rapid response racial equity assessment to identify projects for the $20 million in federal funding it has been awarded.

In identifying the guaranteed income pilot program, the assessment noted the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on low-income communities, especially in the areas of job loss, job recovery and wage growth.” Boulder has experienced this as well.

Councilmember Mark Wallach worried about assuming the project’s success and said he’d hoped to see more definitive information proving that the ARPA funds will be best spent for this purpose.

“We don’t know with certainty how it’s going to work in Boulder, but the other pilots give us a pretty good indication of the kind of positive change that can result from this kind of project.” Deputy Director for Housing and Human Services Elizabeth Crowe said on Tuesday.

Cameron Burns, deputy director with Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, agreed. So far, Stockton is the only city that’s produced data, but MGI is continuing its national push based in part on the stories and anecdotes coming out of the other 28 pilot projects in place across the country.

The organization estimates at least 12 more will launch in 2022 and 2023.

“I don’t have anything to point to that didn’t go well,” Burns said.

Engagement key to process

As it proceeds, Boulder will have the opportunity to select a name other than “guaranteed income.” Council member Bob Yates suggested this would be smart to avoid an association with universal basic income, a program in which every adult citizen receives a set amount of money regularly.

The Council generally agreed that engagement will be a vital part of the process. Specifically, it will be important to consider what types of people are weighing in.

“As a Boulder homeowner, I am not the right person to be providing a lot of feedback on outcomes nor should I be trying to dictate what benefits other people might expect to get when I’m coming from a very different place,” Councilmember Nicole Spear said.

Boulder is a primarily wealthy place, Council member Junie Joseph agreed.

“My hope is that you will be very specific and reach out to the exact community you believe you will be serving and who will be the beneficiary of this particular program as opposed to just general members of the population,” she said.

If the pilot program proves fruitful, Crowe said the same general process — hiring a project manager, conducting community engagement, finding partners and accepting applications — could be iterated to create a more long-term sustainable version.

Ultimately, city staff are hopeful the program will produce the same transformative results that it has elsewhere.

“Being poor is expensive. Poverty is hard, hard work,” Crowe said. “The nature of the financial assistance in a program like this is so different from the kinds of services we have and that’s really that transformative piece that we want to test.”

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