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Aldermen Clash Over Universal Basic Income Proposal — With Some Saying Reparations Should Be Funded First

The non-binding resolution passed 30-18. Some aldermen who voted against it said the city must pass reparations for the descendants of enslaved people first, while others said the city doesn't have money to fund the program.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) speaks to the press outside the Thompson Center on April 28, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — A non-binding resolution calling for the city to launch a universal basic income pilot program sparked a debate on reparations at City Council Wednesday.

Earlier this month, Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) said he wants Mayor Lori Lightfoot to allocate part of the $1.9 billion in federal stimulus funds for a pilot program to pay people “struggling on a daily basis.” Villegas suggested a Chicago universal basic income pilot program give 5,000 Chicago families $500 per month for one year, totaling $30 million.

“We have got to get money, cash into people’s hands so that we can keep our economy going,” Villegas said.

A similar pilot program is currently underway in nearby Gary, Ind., where 125 residents making $35,000 or less per year are eligible for $500 monthly payments, no strings attached. Recipients will be chosen though a lottery system, WLS reports.

But as the full City Council prepared to vote on the resolution Wednesday, Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of Aldermanic Black Caucus, said until the city makes a deal on reparations for the descendants of enslaved people, “there’s no way in hell we can support direct payments to anybody [else].”

“These conversations are a slap in the face to people that have suffered great atrocity through time in this country,” Ervin said. 

Ald. Maria Hadden (48th), who co-sponsored the universal basic income push with Villegas, and Ald. Sophia King (4th), said she supported some of Ervin’s comments, but sought to reframe the debate on a direct payment program.

“This universal basic income … pilot is not designated for any subset of people,” she said. “There is a lot of synergy and a lot of discussions to have. We’ve got this great subcommittee on reparations and we need to be moving forward together and talk about reparations and talk about guaranteed income as well.”

Earlier this month, the newly created Subcommittee on Reparations held its first meeting to solicit ideas for a reparations program. The subcommittee included testimony from Evanston Ald. Robin Simons, who helped create a groundbreaking reparations program in Evanston that is backed by $10 million in future tax revenue from cannabis sales.

On Monday, Evanston approved a $400,000 housing grant program, the first allocation in its reparations program, according to the Tribune.

Some aldermen who spoke against the universal basic income resolution Wednesday echoed Ervin’s call that the city focus on passing reparations first, while others said the city didn’t have the resources to fund the direct assistance.

The universal basic income resolution passed 30-18, a tight vote for a non-binding resolution. Villegas said earlier this month he plans to introduce a separate ordinance next month that would establish the program.

In addition to Ervin, those voting against the resolution included: Alds. Brian Hopkins (2nd); Pat Dowell (3rd); Michelle Harris (8th); Anthony Beale (9th); George Cardenas (12th); Ed Burke (14th); Stephanie Coleman (16th); Matthew O’Shea (19th); Howard Brookins (21st); Michael Scott Jr. (24th); Chris Taliaferro (29th); Carrie Austin (34th); Emma Mitts (37th); Nicholas Sposato (38th); Anthony Napolitano (41st); Brendan Reilly (42nd) and Michele Smith (43rd).

“You can call it what you want, you can call it universal basic income, if it is not talked about as something that is going to focus on the descendants of slaves first, that’s a non-starter for me,” Scott said. 

Cardenas said money from Washington should not be spent “wildly.”

“I must be missing something in our finances, we just raised property taxes last October, people are losing their homes, there’s gentrification and there’s displacement going on,” he said. 

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) said the universal basic income pilot aims to help people struggling with discrimination and segregation.

“If you give people [money] up front, they can then use it to help stimulate the economy,” Vasquez said.

King said the idea for a universal basic income was once championed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and is what the city needs right now to help vulnerable families.

But Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) said “a federal approach to this issue is much more reasonable and justified.”

Villegas called on his colleagues not to be divided on the issue.

“We could definitely work out all the details around who’s eligible, but this is not reparations or universal basic income, we can have those discussions together,” he said.

After the meeting, Lightfoot didn’t say she’d support the program.

“I favor jobs. I think that in the long term, building a strong, robust and inclusive economy that deals people in from across the city is the best way that we can cure some of the economic woes that folks are facing,” she said. 

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