With about 18 percent of city residents living below the poverty line, Boston officials are mulling the implementation of a temporary guaranteed income program for the city’s poor.
While many specific questions regarding such a program remain unanswered, including total cost, where the money would come from, a timeline for implementation, and who exactly would benefit, city councilors and officials from Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration discussed the idea during a Monday council hearing.
“I want us to think about what is the expense of not pulling people out of poverty, and what that costs our city,” said Councilor Kendra Lara, who sponsored the hearing.
She pointed out that poverty is connected to higher health risks for conditions including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and asthma. In her hearing order, she said it was the responsibility of government to meet the basic needs of constituents and that a program could improve quality of life in Boston.
“We’re already paying the cost of poverty,” she said Monday.
The conversation about providing greater assistance to Boston’s poor is in its preliminary stages. Segun Idowu, Wu’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, told councilors the city has no pilot program, and a guaranteed income program is one among many tools the city is considering to attack poverty, an issue he said needs to be addressed urgently. Developing any guaranteed income program in the city would involve private, philanthropic partners, he told the officials.
“I see a program like this as a safety net for many of our residents,” he said.
Elijah Miller, the director of policy for Idowu’s Cabinet, said city officials are “investigating how is guaranteed income performing in pilots . . . across the country.”
“Many of the findings are still preliminary, so there is a fog over the mechanisms of how exactly people’s lives are changed by guaranteed income,” he told the councilors gathered in City Hall’s Iannella Chamber.
Councilor Ed Flynn was among those with concerns about the implementation of a guaranteed income proposal.
“We are in uncertain economic times,” said Flynn. “Businesses are concerned about our economic outlook. We have vacant office and commercial spaces that have not recovered from the pandemic. There are also concerns about the commercial tax base.”
Boston, he said, should be focused on delivering basic services, including public safety, and should prioritize better salaries for city employees to help retain talent.
“All of this needs funding,” he said. “We would need significant funds for a universal basic income program. At this time, I don’t think we should experiment with the program.”
However, Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune said she was encouraged by existing data on the potential of guaranteed income to help people make ends meet on rent, food, or transportation costs.
“Oftentimes where there is will to pay for things, we can find it,” she said.
Said Councilor Gabriela “Gigi” Coletta, “there’s data now to back up that this is a lifeline to many families.”
According to Lara’s hearing order, about one in five city residents are living in poverty and almost one in three children. (This year, the federal poverty line is $30,000 for a family of four.) Of the 121,000 people living in poverty in Boston, the majority are people of color, with women between the ages of 18 and 24 constituting the largest demographic of the impoverished.
Programs in Cambridge and Chelsea, as well as the state of Alaska, “have demonstrated that implementation of programs based on a guaranteed basic income is capable of relieving economic stress for low- income households,” according to Lara.
In Chelsea, an initiative resulted in recipients spending about 75 percent of the program’s $2.1 million on food, while in Alaska, a universal income measure did not curb employment; in fact, part-time work there increased by 17 percent, according to Lara’s order.