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Boston officials exploring guaranteed basic income program

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“We know that poverty is a policy failure, as we have seen so many times, that requires a policy solution,” one councilor said.

Boston City Council. Pat Greenhouse/Boston Globe

Boston officials are weighing the creation of a program that would provide a temporary guaranteed income program for residents living below the poverty line. 

The topic was the subject of a City Council hearing Monday, where officials from Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration fleshed out some of the details of how a potential program would work. But many questions still remain, including the program’s scope, cost, influence on the labor market, and impacts on inflation. 

Before more research is completed and analyzed, the city is “in no way” prepared to move forward with a guaranteed basic income pilot at the moment, Councilor Kendra Lara said during Wednesday’s City Council meeting. Lara sponsored Monday’s hearing. 

She did say she was “encouraged” by the city’s commitment to a “wraparound” approach to combating poverty in Boston. Lara hopes the conversation around the topic will continue amongst councilors and city officials and that an official proposal for a program will come together in the next year. 

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Just under 19% of Boston residents are living in poverty, and the child poverty rate is 27.7%, according to Lara’s hearing order. Women between the ages of 18 and 24 are the largest demographic living in poverty in Boston, and most of those living in poverty are people of color. 

“We know that poverty is a policy failure, as we have seen so many times, that requires a policy solution,” Lara said Wednesday. “We’ve seen this idea blossom as something that can really help us pull families and children out of poverty, like we’ve seen with the child tax credit right after the pandemic. I think that, as a council, and as a city, we have a responsibility to ensure that we’re taking care of our most vulnerable residents.”

Tools for fighting poverty are a top priority for city officials, Chief of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion Segun Idowu said during Monday’s hearing. This is due to multiple factors, including the economic uncertainties of 2024, the impact of artificial intelligence on the workforce, projections that Boston’s population will grow “significantly” over the next decade, and the fact that many residents are hovering just above the poverty line. 

Any guaranteed income program developed by the city would require partnerships with the philanthropic community, he said. 

City Council President Ed Flynn said he had concerns about how much such a program would cost.

These are “uncertain economic times,” he said, citing concerns from businesses,  vacant office and commercial space, and the city’s commercial tax base. 

“Our city needs to ensure that we provide basic city services and public safety for our constituents. I also believe that our city needs to prioritize paying better salaries for our city employees in order for us to find and maintain talent,” he said. “All of this needs funding. We would need significant funds for a universal basic income program. At this time, I don’t think we should experiment with the program.”

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In her hearing order, Lara referenced similar programs in Cambridge, Chelsea, and Alaska. 

During the summer of 2020, Chelsea officials distributed up to $400 a month to 2,000 families as part of the city’s pandemic response. Recipients ended up spending about 75% of the money distributed on food, as was intended when it was first introduced. Chelsea brought the program back this year. 

A program called Rise Up Cambridge began as a lottery-based pilot program in 2021, where $500 monthly payments were distributed to families in need. Cambridge officials expanded the program earlier this year, and about 2,000 families, or 4% of all households in the city, are now eligible. 

“I think guaranteed income is, as we’ve seen in other cities… just really impactful if we’re trying to get folks out of poverty. Giving them money to do so in a manner that is non-paternalistic is the best way forward. I’m encouraged by the results that we’ve seen, the data on this,” Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune said Monday.

Source: Boston Globe

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