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Rochester launches a guaranteed income program. You can apply starting next week

Rochester City Hall
James Brown
Rochester City Hall

Mayor Malik Evans says the city's Guaranteed Basic Income program, launched Thursday, will be "transformational" not just for the people and families that benefit but for Rochester as a whole.

“Its time to take our city from a poverty mindset to a prosperity mindset,” the mayor said, flanked by elected officials and advocates during a news conference at City Hall.

The program will provide $500 monthly to 351 people over one year with no strings attached. People can apply beginning at 10 a.m. June 22. Officials expect between 8,000 and 10,000 will do so before the application window closes on June 29.

“This will be transformational,” the mayor said in an interview. “This will allow people to transform their lives.”

The program is the culmination of two years of work, begun under former Mayor Lovely Warren. The city committed $2.2 million in federal pandemic relief dollars to fund the program and enlisted the support of local and national agencies to help develop the program.

Recipients will be chosen at random and must meet age, income and residency requirements. The first payments could be made in October.

“We see over and over that recipients are using the majority of their funds on basic needs like food, on rent, on utilities, on transportation,” said Sukhi Samra, executive director with Mayors for a Guaranteed Basic Income.

“So I think it tells this story,” she continued, “of the ways in which the social safety net is currently falling short.”

‘A place of health and thriving’

Rochester joins Ithaca, Mount Vernon and dozens of other cities nationwide that are testing the anti-poverty initiative.

Half of those programs are funded with federal pandemic relief money or other public funds. But few, if any, have the depth of poverty seen locally.

Nearly a third of Rochester residents and almost half its children live in poverty. The poverty rate is improving, but ranks among the highest of major U.S. metro areas, Census records show — worse than Buffalo and better only than Detroit and Cleveland.

The idea is that income stability translates to housing stability and job stability. There are other positives. A separate guaranteed income program, which Bloomberg is expanding to Rochester, targets new mothers. One study found increased brain activity and development among infants in recipient households.

“The measure of success for me,” the mayor said, “will be what goal the individuals set, and were they able to reach it.”

Listen: Would a guaranteed income program help alleviate poverty in Rochester?

There are certain to be naysayers of the cash giveaway. And proponents are prepared for that.

Graphic shows the eligibility criteria.
City of Rochester
Graphic shows the eligibility criteria.

"When we give money to wealthy people, we give them assumed credibility, right?” said the Rev. Myra Brown, who helped develop the Rochester program. "We just assume they know what to do, (that) they're gonna do the right thing.

“When we give money to poor people … we start to think about all the hoops they should jump through just to make sure they're doing the right thing.”

That is not the case with a guaranteed income program.

Everyone who applies will be offered but not required to receive free financial counseling. Recipients will be asked to have their spending tracked and complete surveys along the way. That research — assessing impacts on spending, consumption, credit, education, employment and housing stability, and physical and mental well-being — could inform other city policy and actions in health and safety, food access and other areas, officials said.

The belief, Brown said, is that, if given the resources, people will “attend to the struggles, and the barriers that have been in their lives, so that they can get to a place of health and thriving.

“And that is what this is all about.”

What comes after?

Guaranteed income is meant to supplement – not supplant – existing social safety net programs.

Organizers in Rochester secured waivers so the added income will not affect certain benefits (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Home Energy Assistance Program). Working with Action for a Better Community, they developed a benefits calculator for effects on Social Security benefits and Medicaid programs, which they said did not respond to requests to provide waivers as well.

A private donor sponsoring one recipient allowed the program to be classified as a public-private partnership, thus qualifying it for waivers, officials said.

But, as Evans noted: “These dollars only flow for a year. So what happens after that year?”

That question is top of mind in Ithaca, which is wrapping up its guaranteed income pilot program this week.

“I have concerns,” said Liddy Barger, who is with the nonprofit Human Services Coalition that helps administer the Ithaca program. "I will be paying close attention to what the research is showing us from our own project.”

Ithaca recipients will continue to be tracked, with reports expected in six months and a year.

But these programs are still new. The initial spark was a Stockton, California program launched in 2019. There simply isn’t yet enough of a track record to know if the change will be lasting. Or if, once the added benefits end, people drift back to their earlier, financially precarious state.

Broader benefit

“These folks all live in our community, right?” Barger said. "And that money is being spent within our community as well. … That's the benefit. That's the benefit for everybody, I think.”

A word of caution, though — Barger said early lessons are to tread lightly at the outset.

"Guaranteed income can be a very powerful tool when it comes to the sort of intersection between housing stability and domestic violence," Barger said, emphasizing the need for confidentiality — even between spouses or within a household — as some quietly saved the money.

Ithaca focused on caregivers, specifically the BIPOC community, and faced initial pushback and distrust given the problematic history that exists and questions of cultural competency. A town hall with the researchers helped diversify what initially was an applicant pool of older white women.

Ultimately Evans and others point to the need for federal action, making permanent something like we saw during the pandemic with boosts to earned income or child tax credits.

Evans has maintained from the start that the program needed to be bigger. Much bigger. He hopes the pilot helps attract foundations and other groups to grow and ultimately take over the effort.

“I don't think the city should necessarily run this,” he said. “It's not really something we do. But is something that we can support, I think, in the long term.”

Once Rochester’s application window closes, a randomized group will be selected. They will be split onto two tracks, with the goal being to notify the first group in July and the second in September. That is a matter of workflow. It’s up to Brown and her 14-member Black Community Focus Fund to contact, verify and enroll each recipient.

The first group should receive monthly disbursements beginning in October, running through September 2024. The second group would run from December through November 2024.

This, and other programs like it, "has the potential to change the way we think about poor people,” Brown said. “And I think it has the opportunity to ... provide a different model for how we walk with people along that journey of poverty.”

Brian Sharp is WXXI's investigations and enterprise editor. He also reports on business and development in the area. He has been covering Rochester since 2005. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.