Editor’s note: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect details surrounding the proposed guaranteed income program being considered by the City of Boulder.
A program to offer a steady stream of income for people struggling to make ends meet could be on the horizon in Boulder, with no conditions or restrictions.
There’s currently no funding to run the program, but city staff are asking the Boulder City Council to approve $3 million to fund a pilot version out of the city’s $20.15 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money, designed to help communities during the pandemic.
In March, city council approved $250,000 of that for the Health and Human Services Department to design the project. That money came from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) as well as ARPA.
A vote by council on the rest of the funding is expected this summer, as city staff continue to incubate the proposal. There’s so far general, though not unanimous, support among councilmembers, albeit with questions and reservations raised.
The proposed guaranteed income program is part of a nationwide trend of mayors looking to increase social programs for low-income residents, in the wake of the success of a pilot program in Stockton, California, and growing economic disparities brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs piloted a program with 125 randomly selected residents in 2019. There are now at least 35 such mayor-led programs operating in cities big and small across the nation, as part of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a national advocacy network. Boulder Mayor Aaron Brockett is a member of the network.
If approved, Boulder’s program, along with Denver’s, would be the first of their kind in Colorado. Many of the programs, including Stockton’s and the one launching in Denver, are privately funded through foundations, venture capitalists and other philanthropy.
According to Sukhi Samra, executive director of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, unconditional stipends are a way for households to meet their specific needs — quickly — without the bureaucracy and restrictions typical of government assistance.
“One family needs childcare. Another needs school supplies. And another needs to pay off a medical bill,” Samra said. “We believe cash can be a really effective tool in allowing people to meet their most urgent needs.”
Elizabeth Crowe, deputy director of the city’s Housing and Human Services Department, who oversees the pilot project, said city staff started researching a guaranteed income program in 2019, after Stockton’s launch. But she said Covid accelerated the process. “We’ve been seeing all of the disparities in our community become that much more magnified in terms of income inequity.”
So far, according to Crowe, the city has been researching case studies from other pilot projects. It’s working toward hiring a coordinator and pulling together a community task force.
Crowe and her team will begin allocating the other $2.75 million from ARPA funds, if the project is fully approved later this summer.
The pilot program would run for one to two years and could potentially serve up to 500 community members, according to city staff. While specifics about eligibility, implementation and other details have yet to be worked out, officials say they hope to open applications for the program in December.
Crowe estimates that if the team follows their current estimated schedule, they would hope to deliver their first cash transfers in March 2023.
Boulder City Council heard updates to the guaranteed income pilot program on Tuesday, May 24. The majority of councilmembers voiced their support but wanted more details about the project. Some were skeptical that the program would be more effective than spending the money on existing social services.
“It’s a question of what gives us the best return on a $3 million investment,” Councilmember Mark Wallach said. “Is there any analysis as to why we are better off using this money in this fashion?”
Crowe said part of the nature of being a pilot program is that there are unknowns.
But, “what we’ve seen from other existing pilots is that this kind of a cash transfer program is transformational for people who participate,” Crowe said. She cited results Stockton released from its pilot project that showed an uptick in employment among participants, as well as improvements to their mental health and housing security.
Councilmember Nicole Speer encouraged the city to solicit opinions from community members directly affected by poverty to better understand their needs. Some other councilmembers echoed this sentiment.
“As a Boulder homeowner, I am not the right person to be providing a lot of feedback on outcomes [from the project], nor should I be trying to dictate what benefits other people might expect to get when I’m coming from a very different place,” Speer said.
The biggest sticking point, however, may not be the program itself — but its name.
Councilmember Bob Yates said the city should consider changing the name of the project, an idea Councilmember Junie Joseph supported.
“You don’t want to give the false impression to community members that we intend to serve people indefinitely,” Joseph said.
Yates said a guaranteed income project might be confused with universal basic income, a social service program made popular by 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang that would send every adult a set amount of money regularly, regardless of financial need. (The terms “guaranteed minimum income” and “universal basic income” are often used interchangeably.) Yates said he worries some members of the community might not support the project if it is equated with universal basic income.
“I think if we use the term ‘guaranteed income,’ that could cause some community backlash that is unintended in the confusion,” he said.
Even if funded, Crowe estimates the project likely has until the spring of next year before residents might start receiving payments, based on the project timelines in other cities. And hiring will be critical, as the city is currently struggling to fill dozens of vacancies.
“No one in our department and no city employee, that I connect with or know of, have time to take this project on full-time or even a healthy part-time,” Crowe said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that low-income residents would receive $500 monthly as part of the proposed guaranteed income program, and that the city has spent the approved $250,000 on researching case studies from other pilot projects. However, the funding level and frequency of payouts has yet to be determined, and research costs have so far been part of regular salaries, according to a representative from the City of Boulder.