A basic income for the city’s poor isn’t crazy, but the lack of detail is unacceptable

By the Editorial Board

Mayor Tishaura Jones’ proposal to create a guaranteed basic income by distributing cash to the poorest residents of St. Louis isn’t quite the goofy left-wing idea that some on the right are portraying. Poverty is largely a systemic problem that requires societal action. And when there is money in the hands of people who will immediately spend it on unmet basic needs, it actually helps to move money around the local economy faster and more realistically than the discredited notion on the supply side of putting more money in the pockets of the rich, where it is more likely to stay.

But details on how, for whom and for how long this scheme will work are still scarce, even though it has already started going through the College of Aldermen. Unless Jones has a way to make the program sustainable — and it’s not at all apparent — it risks becoming just a brief, expensive piece of political theater that ultimately does little for the people. poor or for the city’s economy.

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If this issue sounds familiar, it’s because Jones last year used $5 million in pandemic relief money to donate $500 each to more than 9,000 of the city’s poorest residents. . Predictably, the program was plagued with administrative problems, but it’s almost certain that most of these families ended up using the money for basics like food and utilities.

As helpful as $500 certainly is for any struggling family, what problem is really solved by a one-time payment that doesn’t have the potential to permanently improve their lives? For example, does a one-off payment allow a poor person to enroll in training courses or have reliable transportation to a better job? To the extent that the idea of ​​a guaranteed basic income has value beyond short-term relief, it must be maintained, with standards and goals that push people towards self-sufficiency rather than making them infinitely dependent on government payment.

Another problem is that, unlike the thousands of people served by the previous program, it is difficult to see how this one could reach more than a few hundred families. The $5 million Jones wants to spend from leftover pandemic funds, divided into monthly installments of $500 spread over a year, would help less than 840 families, even before accounting for administrative costs.

With so few potential beneficiaries, who would receive the money? If only by the lowest income, many recipients would by definition be homeless – a community in which mental health and addictions issues would create legitimate concerns about simply handing over money without any control over the how it is spent.

And underlying these and other questions is the most important: how would the second year and beyond be paid? So far, Jones and his allies have offered no answers. Until they do, the city shouldn’t even consider spilling more money like this.