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County Enrolls First Recipients Into Largest Guaranteed Income Program In US: ‘This Is Not A Handout; It’s A Hand Up’

The first $500 monthly checks will roll out next month for the 3,250 pilot program recipients.

GiveDirectly, a global nonprofit, hired staff on-the-ground to help roll out the program.
Maia Pandey/Block Club Chicago
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DOWNTOWN — Jailyn Brown might soon be able to invest in starting her own business. Clarence Schaffer is going to be able to keep up with bills to keep a roof over his head as he cares for his mom.

The two are among the first to be enrolled in Cook County’s $42 million guaranteed income pilot program, which will provide $500 monthly to enrollees for the next two years. It’s the largest publicly funded program of its kind in the United States — and the first where the government has committed to a permanent continuation after the pilot ends, according to county officials.

More than 230,000 people applied to the program, with 3,250 people ultimately selected. Brown, Schaffer and others from that cohort enrolled Wednesday during the first of several in-person enrollment events the county will hold before the first checks go out Dec. 15.

Brown, of Bronzeville, said she heard of the program through a friend who was also applying. A cashier at a Dollar Tree in Beverly, Brown said her income has been limited since the location splits eligible working hours between all employees — and most hours go to stockworkers.

Along with paying routine bills, Brown hopes to use the money to invest in her own candle business, she said.

“Sometimes I’ll have between 10 and 15 hours a week, and it’s biweekly, so I wouldn’t really be getting much,” Brown said. “It’s kind of a struggle to keep any kind of money in my account.”

Pete Subkovieka, director of the pilot program, said allowing residents to lift themselves out of economic insecurity has been a primary goal.

“There have been recipients in other programs who start their own businesses, who find better jobs because they actually have the flexibility to take off an hour or two from their current job to go find something that pays better,” Subkovieka said. “It’s ultimately going to make people more independent and more empowered to really go after what they want to in their lives.”

To ensure people signed up for the program, county officials reached out to local, trusted organizations to market it to residents, Subkovieka said. In partnership with GiveDirectly, a global nonprofit that specializes in cash donations, the county randomly selected recipients from the total applicant pool to reflect the demographics of the larger group, Subkovieka said.

The county has also partnered with University of Chicago researchers to hone the lottery selection system and devise a data collection plan to re-evaluate the program at the end of two years, Subkovieka said.

Sarah Moran, GiveDirectly’s U.S. country director, said though the organization works globally, it has focused on staffing local residents ahead of the Cook County launch.

“If we are starting a new project someplace, we really focus on hiring people who know the city,” Moran said.

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle said these partnerships have been crucial to launching the pilot. She’s been encouraged to see results from similar programs across the country, Preckwinkle said.

“This is not a new idea — Martin Luther King talked about this 50 years ago, guaranteed income, and the Black Panthers actually talked about it,” Preckwinkle said. “Everybody in the country should have either a guaranteed job or guaranteed income, so we’re acting on ideas that have been out there for a while, and we hope to help make the case that this is something the federal government should take up.”

Clarence Schaffer, of Chicago, said he heard of the program from a friend of his mother’s. Schaffer took a voluntary leave from his job in May to care for his mother full-time after she underwent heart surgery, he said. Schaffer said he has been unable to access unemployment benefits.

The $500 will significantly reduce Schaffer’s stress in meeting monthly car and mortgage payments, he said.

“There are a lot of people in situations that are not unlike mine, people having to take care of their elderly and find suitable options for day care,” Schaffer said. “People aren’t comfortable with accepting help, but this is not a handout; it’s a hand up.”

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