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Durham may give formerly incarcerated residents $500 per month in guaranteed income

News & Observer - 2/4/2021

Feb. 4—DURHAM — At least 55 formerly incarcerated Durham residents could get $500 a month for a year as part of a guaranteed income pilot program, City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said Thursday.

Last month Mayor Steve Schewel announced that Durham will likely get a share of a $15 million grant that Twitter's chief executive officer, Jack Dorsey, had contributed to Mayors for Guaranteed Income, a group advocating for such programs across the country.

The city passed a resolution Thursday to pledge its support for a program at the local and national levels.

Before reading the resolution, Middleton addressed those who have criticized him for the proposal.

"I just want to say to the folks that have called us socialists in our inboxes, to folks that have expressed legitimate concerns about disincentivizing work, to those that have, you know, called us 'civil rights pimps,'" he said. "That's a quote."

"To those that have suggested that we would be basically subsidizing pathology," he continued. "I want to say, very clearly, one, that this is not city money."

Middleton stressed that the program would be funded privately, although he has been prepared to ask for city money in the past.

"This is not about giving people houses or elaborate lifestyles or millions of dollars," he said. "This is about us saying as a nation, and as a city that there is a line beneath which we will not allow you to fall by virtue of your humanity."

The resolution does not specify who could receive the income in Durham. Middleton said Durham's program could include formerly incarcerated residents during an interview with The News & Observer.

The city expects to apply for the $500,000 grant next week, he said. If the city receives the money, the pilot program could launch in late March.

How might the program work?

The program could span 12 to 18 months, during which the residents re-acclimating to life after incarceration could receive direct payments of $500 to $1,000 a month, Middleton told the N&O.

In January, Schewel put Middleton and Council member Pierce Freelon in charge of submitting an application and creating a plan for administering the program.

Middleton met with scholars from the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Guaranteed Income Research and representatives of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Spirithouse and other groups.

He decided, then, to narrow the pool to formerly incarcerated residents, partly to collect data on how a guaranteed income could affect the population.

"Brothers and sisters who are returning from incarceration, often times, they check a lot of boxes. They face dual challenges of employment, housing, stigma," Middleton said.

A guaranteed monthly income could also help reduce recidivism, he said.

"Whatever your situation is, you now have an income, a source of money, that could alleviate anxiety, changes your calculus about life choices you can make," Middleton said. "It's less tempting to come up with creative ways to make money."

Stockton, California, ran a guaranteed income program called the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration in 2019. The program gave 125 residents $500 for a year and a half, the N&O reported.

Eight months into it, the Stockton residents spent 40% of the money on food, 25% on other merchandise and just under 12% on utility payments, according to the program's researchers.

Middleton is also reaching out to philanthropists and private donors to add more residents to the program, such as people at risk of eviction, and to extend the scope beyond a year.

He had originally pitched an idea about guaranteed income in Durham in August, The N&O had reported.

"When I first announced this, I didn't intend for this to be kind of a one-off thing. I wanted it to be codified and institutionalized," he said. "And also look to adding more demographics and groups. I mean, universal means at some point, everyone would be qualified for it."

How will formerly incarcerated residents be picked?

The details are being worked out, but city staff or a local organization could administer the payments and oversee the program, Middleton said.

People would be picked by random selection using a database of residents transitioning out of prison and a vetting process afterward, he said. They would have to be willing to participate and currently unemployed. They also could not already be receiving public benefits that an additional $500 monthly income would disqualify them from getting.

When asked whether the vetting process would consider the crimes a person committed, Middleton said, "We haven't determined that yet."

"The presumption is that whatever society and our judicial system said was the cost you had to pay, you've paid it," he said.

Pledge in support of guaranteed income

The resolution the Durham City Council unanimously passed states "nearly 40% of Americans could not afford a single $400 emergency, and rising income inequality is compounded by an ever-growing racial wealth divide."

The "ongoing direct cash payments will put real money in the pockets of people across the country and have the dual effect of stabilizing families and stimulating local economies," the resolution states.

"There are cities all over the country and all over the world who have done these pilots," Mayor Pro Temp Jillian Johnson said, before voting for the resolution. "People use these funds to to pay off their debts, to get better education, to provide opportunities for their children."


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