2021 Will Be the Year of Guaranteed Income Experiments


Giving people direct, recurring cash payments, no questions asked, is a simple idea — and an old one. Different formulations of a guaranteed income have been promoted by civil rights leaders, conservative thinkers, labor experts, Silicon Valley types, U.S. presidential candidates and even the Pope. Now, it’s U.S. cities that are putting the concept in action.

Fueled by a growing group of city leaders, philanthropists and nonprofit organizations, 2021 will see an explosion of guaranteed income pilot programs in U.S. cities. At least 11 direct-cash experiments will be in effect this year, from Pittsburgh to Compton. 

Another 20 mayors have said they may launch such pilots in the future, with several cities taking initial legislative steps to implement them. 

“We are at a moment right now where city leaders, residents policymakers, and activists are all looking for big ideas to begin to chip away at some glaring structural problems in our systems and institutions,” said Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director of the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions. “This new wave of pilots is different because of the groundswell of support for guaranteed income we are seeing in cities across America.”

These programs are often called UBI, for Universal Basic Income, but with each distributing monthly payments to just some households, they aren’t yet truly universal, and there’s disagreement over whether they should be. Instead, they’re “unconditional,” a contrast to many existing government programs that tie benefits to work requirements, or set parameters on how recipients can use the money. 

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