Places Giving Free Money: Universal Basic Income Programs

A new wave of cities is testing out programs that give their residents free money each month, no strings attached.

Often referred to as guaranteed income or universal basic income, these types of programs differ from other U.S. government benefits in that they tend to give low-income people direct cash payments with little to no stipulation on how to spend the money.

“Programs like this limit bureaucracy,” says Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and professor at Michigan State University who’s directing a year-long universal income program for mothers in Flint called Rx Kids.

“They’re efficient; they’re effective,” she adds. “They enable families to have freedom of choice to decide how best to make their ends meet.”

While not a novel idea, cash-payment programs like the one in Flint have started to catch on in the U.S. since the pandemic — with dozens of towns from coast-to-coast testing them out. Big cities like Baltimore, Chicago, Houston and Sacramento have gotten on board.

Many of the initiatives are at least partially funded by the pandemic-era American Rescue Plan and are loosely inspired by the poverty-eradicating efficacy of stimulus checks and the expanded child tax credit. Scores of international studies suggest that giving needy families direct cash is one of the best ways to reduce poverty. But until recently, the U.S. has largely eschewed direct-payment welfare.

6 places giving residents free money, no strings attached

In 2024, at least six major programs — spanning dozens of cities — are in effect in the U.S., with more in the works. Here’s a look at how and where these programs operate.

1. Baltimore

Residential redlining and racial segregation in Baltimore have left a legacy of inequity that is present to this day. By launching a pilot program to give young, low-income parents $1,000 payments each month, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott has said he hopes to fix some of those long-standing issues.

Started in 2022, the Baltimore Young Families Success Fund pilot program is providing 200 parents aged 18 to 24 monthly payments of $1,000 for two years. The final payments are expected to come later this summer. Funding comes from leftover American Rescue Plan money and philanthropic efforts.

To some participants of the program, which is in partnership with Shaquille O’Neal-backed Steady app, it sounded too good to be true at first. Program leaders have said some skeptical Baltimoreans even “thought it was a scam.” Far from it. The pilot program is on track to invest nearly $5 million in young Baltimore parents.

Research firm Abt Global and Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University are pairing up to evaluate the mental, physical and financial health of the families involved in the pilot to help the city decide whether to expand the program.

2. Cook County, Illinois

Most notably the home of Chicago, Cook County has been running a guaranteed-income program since December 2022 with payments flowing through the end of 2024.

Known as the Promise Program, the pilot is using $42 million of American Rescue Plan funds to give 3,250 low- and middle-income families $500-a-month cash payments over a two-year period, for a total of $12,000.

According to local officials, more than 200,000 families applied, and the participants were chosen by a lottery system. Excluding income from the program, the median earnings of those in the pilot is $21,000. And while participants were not required to be parents, nearly 60% of those selected have children.

The University of Chicago is conducting a study on the pilot test, including a control group of 3,250 families not receiving guaranteed income for comparison. Depending on the findings, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle said that the program may continue in future years.

3. Flint, Michigan

Following the Flint contaminated-water crisis a decade ago, the ravaging effects of poverty and inequality in the small Michigan town gained outsized national attention.

The quagmire spurred some local officials and advocates into action. One such advocate is Dr. Hanna-Attisha of Rx Kids — who was instrumental in uncovering the Flint water crisis and leading the recovery efforts.

Now, she’s heading the nation’s largest guaranteed-income project for mothers in Flint.

“This is not a pilot,” she says. “Rx Kids is a universal program.”

As of January, every mom (or primary caregiver) of a newborn baby in the city of Flint can join the program, which provides $500 per month for the first year of a baby’s life. In addition to those monthly payments, moms-to-be receive a lump-sum payment of $1,500 after reaching the 20-week mark of pregnancy — with no income requirements or restrictions on how the money can be used.

The funds also follow the baby, Hanna-Attisha says, meaning that if a child is adopted or is left with a new primary caregiver, the new guardian receives the aid.

So far, the program has raised $55 million through philanthropic efforts, American Rescue Plan funds and — crucially — redirected money from the city’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

Better known as simply welfare, TANF is a federal assistance program already in place all around the country. By repurposing funds to assist low-income residents with newborns, Hanna-Attisha says the program in Flint can be replicated all across the country.

And it just might be: Michigan officials are gearing up to expand the program into Detroit, Kalamazoo, Saginaw, Benton Harbor and part of the Upper Peninsula. Flint’s program has also gained the attention of Congressional lawmakers Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., who are keen to propose a federal version of it.

4. Harris County, Texas

In Harris County, Texas, more than 15% of the population is in poverty, and local officials are experimenting with ways to reduce that.

Uplift Harris, an 18-month pilot program that’s giving nearly 2,000 county residents cash payments of $500 a month, just might be the answer.

Not everyone in Harris County — which includes Houston and dozens of other cities — is eligible to join. Only low-income residents from 10 select ZIP codes are eligible to be chosen later this month. To be included, residents’ household income can’t exceed 200% of the federal poverty line.

Unlike similar programs, Uplift Harris is fully funded by federal American Rescue Plan dollars, with $20.5 million earmarked for the pilot. The first payments are expected to go out in early April.

Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democrat, told the Wall Street Journal that he hopes the program lays the groundwork for a broader and permanent one. However, its future is uncertain as some Texas Republicans are attempting to halt Uplift Harris by asking the state’s attorney general to block it.

5. Sacramento County, California

Since 2021, some low-income residents of Sacramento County have been receiving monthly payments to help them cover everyday necessities.

The county includes Sacramento City, Citrus Heights, Folsom and several other towns.

The first iteration of the county’s guaranteed income program — in partnership with the nonprofit United Way — paid out $300 per month to 100 families. Subsequent rounds of the pilot have paid out $500 per month. Since its inception, the program has assisted 310 low-income families in the area.

The latest cohort of participants started receiving their monthly payments in January, and they’re set to last for 12 months.

Funding for the guaranteed-income pilot comes from the American Rescue Plan and donations from the Sierra Health Foundation.

Sacramento State University is in charge of studying the efficacy of the program. Already, it’s published initial reports on the first two iterations. Early findings show that 91% of people before joining wouldn’t be able to afford an unexpected expense of $400. By participating in the program, three quarters said they’re now confident they can reach their financial goals.

6. Pierce County, Washington

Starting in April, Piece County is expanding its Growing Resilience in Tacoma (GRIT) program.

As the name suggests, the program largely serves Tacoma, Washington, but may include residents from nearby Parkland, Midland, Summit, Spanaway and Frederickson.

The program is limited to low-income single heads of households who have children. It will provide 130 parents with $500-a-month payments for a year, $6,000 in all. The money is “unconditional and unrestricted.”

“This project is designed to demonstrate that this type of cash investment can reduce feelings of overwhelm and toxic stress, improve economic stability, increase housing security, and improve health and well-being while reducing poverty in our community,” the application states.

The first version of GRIT was a 13-month program that started in December 2021. That program was largely deemed a success, and the county is doubling down. Both versions of the program are trials being run by the Center for Guaranteed Income Research at the University of Pennsylvania and in partnership with United Way.

“It’s changed my house for the better,” one participant in the 2021 program told researchers. “I’ve felt so much less month-to-month stress since this program started.”

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