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Meet the mayors pushing for guaranteed income in 30 cities across the country

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Richmond, Virginia Mayor Levar Stoney speaks on December 10, 2019 in Richmond, Virginia.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

In Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1967 book "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" the civil rights leader discussed how to best address poverty in the United States. 

"I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income," he wrote.

King was not the first to propose a guaranteed income; political philosophers from Montesque to Thomas Paine also penned their support for what is often referred to as "universal basic income." And the idea was recently re-popularized by former Democratic presidential candidate and current New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang

However, King stands out as the most visible influence on Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a coalition of 30 mayors from Texas to Minnesota, who support direct, recurring cash payments for citizens and are starting guaranteed income programs of their own. The organization prominently features King's words on its website, describing its mission as "rooted" in the civil rights leader's legacy.

Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, sometimes called "MGI," was founded by Michael D. Tubbs, then-mayor of Stockton, California in June 2020 after his city launched, and later extended, a basic income program where 125 residents received $500 monthly thanks to funding from the Economic Security Project, a nonprofit that supports other guaranteed income experiments.

CNBC Make It recently spoke with mayors who are pushing the guaranteed income movement forward in their cities — and giving out thousands of dollars in the process.

Richmond, Virginia

"When you look at 2020 and the inequities that have been illuminated this year, you've also seen the injustices that a lot of Black and Brown people have encountered for generations. It's systemic," says Levar Stoney, mayor of Richmond, Virginia where the city is piloting a program in which citizens will receive $500 a month for 24 months. "Some people may think this is a radical idea, but I think there's nothing radical about helping people."

Currently, 18 Richmond families have been confirmed for participation after being randomly selected from a pool of Office of Community Wealth Building clients who the city has determined suffer from a "cliff effect" where the family makes too much money to qualify for federal benefits but not enough to live comfortably as measured by the region's living wage. The city sent a list of participants who met that criteria to an independent research team at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Guaranteed Income Research, who performed a random selection.

Stoney says that his childhood has impacted his support of guaranteed income.

"My father was a high school custodian who did not have a high school education. My grandmother was a domestic laborer working in people's homes. I was raised on my grandmother's Social Security check and my dad's very low working-class salary. As a child, I handled the finances for my family. I had to call the bank and would check and see how much money was in the checking account and sometimes they would tell me we only had $30 left," he says. "The reason I became a supporter of MGI was because I thought about what my grandmother could have done with that extra $500 a month. It would've meant more food and the ability for us to pay our bills."

The so-called Richmond Resilience Initiative is funded through CARES Act dollars, a $240,000 gift from the Robins Foundation, and a recent $500,000 donation from Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, which was itself funded by a $15 million gift by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

City representatives say that the most recent award of funding will allow the program to expand to include up to 55 families in total. 

"For me, this fits right into our justice and equity agenda — ensuring that people don't fall through the cracks," says Stoney. "In Richmond, roughly 21% of the population lives under the poverty line and I believe that they, too, deserve the best that Richmond has to offer."

Mount Vernon, New York

Mount Vernon, New York also received funds from Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and is expected to launch a local program on April 1 in which applicants will be chosen through a series of lotteries aimed at selecting a random, but representative group, of at least 50 households that will receive $500 per month. 

Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard says that interest has been high and that questions about the program's funding have been common. 

"Guaranteed income moneys are not coming out of our city municipal budget," she emphasizes. In addition to the grant funds from Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, "We are working with partners, churches, civic organizations and corporations to raise money. We're also a HUD entitlement community, so we are using some of our HUD entitlement moneys and Covid monies to provide that extra financial assistance right now and doing it in a way that we believe is innovative."

Patterson-Howard says that in the past, the city has used federal funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help pay the rents of struggling citizens and to cover debts owed to utility companies like ConEdison. 

"But we've never used HUD money to give directly to our constituents so that they could make the decisions for themselves," she says. "That's what is most innovative and empowering and restorative and dignity-giving about Mayors for Guaranteed Income than anything that we've ever seen in this country. We're used to giving a handout. I believe [Mayors for a Guaranteed Income] gives a hand up and it allows the people to make decisions for themselves."

The pandemic's impact

This philosophy that direct cash payments are the most respectful and efficient way to provide citizens with the funds they need, is one that has gained significant momentum during the coronavirus pandemic, including among bipartisan lawmakers who have chosen to distribute billions of dollars of economic stimulus through direct stimulus checks, rather than alternative approaches such as tax-write offs.

While stimulus check distribution was far from seamless, they proved to be key to keeping the U.S. economy afloat. Perhaps the most common complaint of stimulus checks has been that they have not been significant nor regular enough

And ultimately, the pandemic has also highlighted how much Americans need significant support

"Millions of households have lost partial or full job-related income over the past year due to the COVID economic crisis. It is critical that Biden's administration, and the new Congress, prioritize a stimulus package that fills the income gap being experienced by people on the ground. The data shows that the most effective way to do this is through recurring stimulus checks," says Stacey Rutland, president and founder of Income Movement, a nonprofit organization aimed at promoting universal basic income. "Ten months into COVID, it is clear that multiple stimulus checks, or a temporary guaranteed income, is going to be necessary to help compress the timeline for economic recovery."

"We want to do everything we can to mitigate some of the anxiety that comes with making ends meet in a very, very tough environment right now with the pandemic and economic downturn," says Stoney, mentioning how financial anxiety can impact people's physical health. "We are looking for economic outcomes, educational outcomes and health outcomes as well."

"This Covid crisis which swept our nation — whether you're rural, urban or suburban, whether you're White, Black, Spanish or Native American — has meant that we finally saw people, especially those in the service industry, that we've been able to ignore for a long time," says Patterson-Howard. "We need everyone and we have to find ways to move forward together. I think this is an opportunity for us to show that we not only see people, but we understand their needs. [Guaranteed income] is a way that we are going to speak to that need in a way that is unapologetic and is in a way that says 'We respect you, and we trust you, and we are here to support and empower you.'"

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