Guest columnist Richard Wallace: Guaranteed income can be bridge of opportunity for those in need
When COVID struck Chicago, it immediately became clear how little support our communities were going to receive. For those of us explicitly denied access to public safety net programs, an age-old question confronted us: how do we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps if we have no boots?
Our communities needed a lifeline. Last August, I had the honor of participating in the launch of the Chicago Future Fund, which provides monthly direct cash payments of $500 for formerly incarcerated West Garfield Park residents. As I saw how such a small offering transformed lives, it became clear to me that guaranteed income programs work, and they need to be made accessible across the country.
The Future Fund has now expanded beyond a pandemic mutual aid program. Today, it focuses on the long-term volatility, psychological wellness, physical functioning, and recidivism of West Garfield Park residents. I am proud that our program currently supports 30 recipients between the ages of 18 and 35. But if we want to make serious strides in achieving income equity throughout the city, more must be done.
Guaranteed income gives people a leg up so that they can access formal employment opportunities. By allowing people to provide for themselves with guaranteed income, they have enough money to meet some of their basic needs and challenge the inflation that's happening in the current housing market. Furthermore, people with a solid safety net are better able to pursue living-wage union work, rather than being forced to work in unfit, precarious work environments just to survive.
We have learned time and time again that when the local government invests in infrastructure, it produces jobs. When the roads need repair, we invest taxpayer dollars into fixing them. Those dollars produce jobs for road repair workers, and those workers fix the roads.
That same logic applies to people who need repair in our communities. When we invest tax dollars back into the hands of the people, the people use those dollars to fix the problems they face and when people have the resources to address their immediate needs, it removes barriers to finding full time jobs.
Guaranteed income will increase the agency of the working class by giving people the flexibility to choose to walk away from bad jobs and work for companies that give them their fair share.
Guaranteed income does more than just grow our economy. It gives people who have been forced to live penny to penny a chance to breathe. Our Future Fund recipients do not need to spend every waking moment trying to secure their next dollar. With that time back, recipients have taken an active role in engaging with their communities.
When working people get their time back, they are able to look past the daily grind and connect with those around them. This time back to individuals is then invested in the community through increased civic engagement. Guaranteed income is more than just a cash transaction. It can help us build a more equitable society for all.
If we come together to advocate for target guaranteed income not only at the local level, but federally as well, we can provide a bridge to opportunity for those who need it most. We can have less poverty, food insecurity, job insecurity and housing insecurity ---- as well as more autonomy as workers.
By supporting efforts to put our taxpayer dollars back into the hands of the people who need it most, we establish conditions of belonging for those with the greatest needs in our communities. They in turn, re-imagine how our government works to tangibly support them.
The CARES Act should not be a two-time thing; rather, we can build a government that works for us in the long run, that offers guaranteed income to continue to help all thrive.
• Richard Wallace is founder and executive director of Equity and Transformation (EAT), a Chicago-based group that works with formerly incarcerated citizens.