Does Atlanta have guaranteed-income programs?

Some of Atlanta’s biggest players have bought in to the concept of universal basic income and are investing in small-scale guaranteed-income pilot programs.

Guarenteed Income Atlanta
The Georgia Resilience and Opportunity Fund (GRO) runs a guaranteed-income program called In Her Hands

Photograph courtesy of the Georgia Resilience and Opportunity Fund

Universal basic income (UBI) isn’t a new idea, but in a dystopian world with pandemics and a growing wealth divide, the utopian concept seems more practical than ever before. Some of Atlanta’s biggest players have bought in and are investing in small-scale guaranteed-income pilot programs.

In September 2023, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation granted $22.4 million to programs on the Westside. Over $6 million of that went to the Georgia Resilience and Opportunity Fund (GRO) for its guaranteed-income program, called In Her Hands. Focusing on Black women in the English Avenue and Vine City neighborhoods, the program will provide 200 residents with direct cash deposits of around $1,000 per month, for up to three years. Residents qualify if they have an income of 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level, and applications will open soon.

Are there any guaranteed-income programs already in Georgia?
GRO already runs three In Her Hands guaranteed-income programs in Georgia, in partnership with GiveDirectly, an international nonprofit organization that pioneered direct cash transfers in East Africa. GRO launched in Old Fourth Ward in late 2021 after the neighborhood’s community task force determined that guaranteed income might be a solution for lifting residents out of poverty. That same year, In Her Hands began operation in Old Fourth Ward, then expanded to College Park and southwest Georgia. The three programs now serve a total of 654 women, providing $850 each per month for two years.

The first-year results of In Her Hands show encouraging numbers—the number of participants now able to put money toward savings increased by 50 percent, educational enrollment increased by 200 percent, and food insecurity has dropped from 78 percent to 60 percent. Participants are using much of the monthly cash to catch up on bills (44 percent), followed closely by spending on food and other essential items (28 percent) and reducing debt (24 percent).

Where did this idea originate?
The concept likely dates back to at least 1516, when Thomas More proposed guaranteed income as a solution to theft and poverty in Utopia. In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for guaranteed income, and In Her Hands takes its name from his words: “The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain.”

In 1969, President Richard Nixon proposed a negative income tax that would pay low-income families $1,600 per year. The program was tested with about 7,500 people. Results showed that the susidies did not raise participants’ income significantly, though the number of hours worked was slightly reduced.

But America has changed since Nixon’s test run. Research from the Pew Center shows an ever-increasing wealth divide: From 1970 to 2018, the share of aggregate income going to middle-class households fell from 62 percent to 43 percent, with the share held by upper-income households increasing from 29 percent to 48 percent. With rising inflation and wages behind the curve, studies show a full-time minimum-wage earner can no longer afford an average two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the U.S.

Did the CARES Act lift citizens out of poverty?
In 2020, President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act, which included $300 billion of one-time cash payments, or “stimulus checks,” of up to $1,200 for qualifying individuals. More than 150 million households received payments, and a Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) published by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that 11.7 million people were lifted above the SPM poverty line.

Zachary Peskowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, says the number of guaranteed-income programs run by local governments and nonprofit organizations has exploded since the pandemic. A couple of programs have even been proposed in the U.S. House, though one never made it to a vote and the other is still in progress. With the freedom cash offers, low-income citizens can work outside existing social safety net programs, like SNAP (food stamps) and housing assistance, to target their individual needs, says Peskowitz. Opponents of the idea fear that guaranteed payments will disincentivize work and reduce the labor supply, though studies show the pandemic stimulus checks did not affect workforce participation. But a primary roadblock is cost. One House proposal for UBI was projected to increase federal spending by $3.75 trillion per year, on top of current social safety net programs.

Other than In Her Hands, has UBI worked in Atlanta?
The City of Atlanta has implemented a guaranteed-income pilot called I.M.P.A.C.T., launched by former Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and continued by Mayor Andre Dickens. The pilot was a partnership with the Urban League of Greater Atlanta, funded by $2 million in city money and a $500,000 donation from Mayors for a Guaranteed Income (MGI)—an organization of 125 mayors that follows a model set by Stockton, California’s SEED guaranteed-

income program. From January 2022 to May 2023, I.M.P.A.C.T. served 300 Atlanta residents who were at least 18 years old and had an income below or equal to 200 percent of the 2021 federal poverty line ($53,000 for a household of four). Participants, 94 percent Black, received $500 per month. In addition, MGI and the City of Atlanta planned to provide waivers that exempted the cash transfer from being considered income, so participants could still use other social programs.

MGI released a spending breakdown for Atlanta participants that showed 41 percent of their total income was spent on retail sales, 25 percent on food, and 11 percent on housing. I.M.P.A.C.T. also documented stories of participants’ lives that show improvement in mental and physical well-being. However, as of press time, MGI had yet to release their final results.

What are GRO’s goals?
Executive director Hope Wollensack says that GRO, with its partner GiveDirectly, has raised $30 million for In Her Hands, including the recent grant from the Blank Foundation. Following a decade of investment in the Westside, the Blank Foundation turned to GRO to streamline its approach. Danny Shoy Jr., the managing director of youth development and Atlanta’s Westside at the Blank Foundation, believes In Her Hands and guaranteed income can help mitigate displacement of legacy residents. “One of the lessons we learned from our evaluations is to engage in a more individual-focused way,” says Shoy. “We knew about GRO’s great work all over Georgia and wanted to bring it to the Westside. This is true Atlanta.”

Wollensack points out that, in English Avenue and Vine City, the poverty rate is 36 percent with a 77 percent Black population. In Her Hands will work with community organizations to reach candidates. Volunteers will knock on doors in the neighborhoods, and GRO plans to hold in-person information sessions to build trust in the community and answer key questions like, Is this a scam? and Will this affect my other social services? As of press time, In Her Hands was unable to provide the same exemption waivers that MGI could, but its team consults with candidates if the $1,000 monthly payments will impact other social services. GRO will also continuously check in with participants to survey how their finances shift, how their personal well-being changes, and their progress toward individual goals.

“It’s not proof of concept for us anymore,” Wollensack says. “The goal of our pilot in the Westside is to bring to life a horizon of what an economy that works for everyone looks like.”

This article appears in our February 2024 issue.