Can guaranteed income combat inequality and poverty in Atlanta?

Atlanta City Councilmember Amir Farokhi partnered with the Economic Security Project to create a task force to study guaranteed income and says they are in talks with philanthropists to bankroll a nonprofit that would operate a pilot program

Can guaranteed income combat inequality and poverty in Atlanta?

Illustration by Matt Love

This year, more than 10 cities across the country will experiment with a policy called guaranteed income. The gist: Cities can help their poorest residents by giving them no-strings-attached cash every month to meet basic needs, pay medical bills, and feed their children. In the coming months, Atlanta, home to some of the country’s most severe income inequalities, might follow suit.

Why are we talking about this here?
In 2018, Atlanta City Councilman Amir Farokhi took office and started representing a diverse and growing district that includes Old Fourth Ward, home to both the largest concentration of Section 8 housing in the Southeast and the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail and its adjacent luxury apartments. Wanting to learn more about ways to reduce poverty and create opportunities, Farokhi partnered with the Economic Security Project—a New York–based advocacy group cofounded by early Facebook employee Chris Hughes, Natalie Foster, and Dorian Warren—to create a task force to study guaranteed income. Farokhi learned that what he once thought was a radical idea could simply be a way to bypass bureaucracy and confusing safety-net programs, he says, giving people “the autonomy to make decisions for themselves in ways that promote dignity and allow people to live better lives.”

Where else has this been tried?
Giving out cash with no questions asked has been debated for centuries and been practiced for decades in the United States. Alaska sends residents a check every year from its oil investment fund (the amount varies based on state budgeting and gas prices), and some Native American reservations offer payments to citizens from gambling revenues. Progressive cities across the country are exploring such programs. In addition, Finland, Mongolia and Iran have also used forms of guaranteed income.

Won’t this discourage people from working?
First, this isn’t universal basic income, which calls for giving cash to everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Guaranteed income programs like the one Atlanta is considering are more targeted; one proposal Farokhi’s task force studied would give cash to single mothers living below the poverty line. A study of Finland’s two-year basic-income experiment—the country sent 2,000 randomly selected (and initially unemployed) citizens roughly $600 a month—found people who received the aid were more likely to find and keep a job and feel happier overall. When a person does quit their job while receiving the benefit, Farokhi says, it’s often to work as a caretaker for a loved one. In Jackson, Mississippi, a program called Magnolia Mother’s Trust gave 20 Black women living in extreme poverty $1,000 every month for a year, allowing them to pay off existing debts, save money for emergencies, or pay to go on a weekend trip with their children. The number of women increased to 110 in March.

When will this program launch?
Farokhi says he and the task force—other members include Dena Kimball, the executive director of the Kendeda Fund—are in talks with private philanthropists to bankroll a nonprofit that would operate the pilot program and the recurring payments. (Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is supportive.) How much they raise from donors will help determine how much the initiative can give and for how long. One model to help stabilize income calls for a group of 200 participants to receive either $800 or $200 a month for three years and would cost $5.1 million to operate, according to the task force’s report released in January. But the program could operate with even $1 million, Farokhi says. It might not solve Atlanta’s income inequality, but it could provide for a “floor of decency.”

This article appears in our March 2021 issue.