Direct cash payments empower families to break free from poverty – Chicago Tribune
The brightest policy minds have tried to tackle poverty for years. Innumerable proposals have been put to the task with varying effects. Recently, a simple idea has risen: “What if we gave people money?”
The city of Chicago and Cook County decided to do just that. As a response to the pandemic, our local leaders created the nation’s first and third largest investments in a guaranteed income. The programs offer thousands of Chicagoland residents $500 a month. This unrestricted, immediate cash relief is comparable to the federal government’s stimulus check program and expanded Child Tax Credit, which lifted at least 3 million children from poverty.
The author of a recent op-ed (“Chicago, Cook County should reconsider their guaranteed basic income pilots,” June 3) writes that city and county leaders should “reconsider” historic investments in direct cash payments, disregarding the agency people should have in deciding how they could best use the financial assistance. We concede that these programs are not large enough to meet total need, and we agree a permanent guaranteed income is the goal.
Where my organization and I take issue with the author, however, is at the suggestion to add more restrictions on the funding. This mocks the spirit of the program. We turn to direct cash payments to empower families to have a sense of control over their lives.
In our work providing social services at LIFT-Chicago, we partner with families as they chart a path to economic mobility. We see firsthand how programs meant for the “most deserving” can both burden and dissuade the exact people meant to find support. Many well-intended programs are developed with restrictions and accountability measures to prove “deservingness.” This is done by design, and it perpetuates racist stereotypes.
The parents we work with are focused on putting food on the table. Having to track their work hours to ensure they remain inside an arbitrary income threshold, for example, adds only more stress. While U.S. social safety net programs have been a lifeline for many, they have failed to end poverty or establish true economic mobility among recipients.
Families should not have to justify how they spend a guaranteed income. It’s critical we reestablish trust with families in need and allow them to make decisions that best suit their needs.
We strongly urge the city and county to lean into existing cash programs and to keep them free of restrictions.
— Sarah Spunt, executive director, LIFT-Chicago
As a leader of a large child, youth and family service organization, I understand the challenges faced by families in Illinois. More than 90% of children in Illinois enter foster care because of neglect, and my organization partners with many of these families. They’re forced to make agonizing decisions: whether to take their child to a checkup or to go to work, or to use their paycheck to feed their child, purchase diapers or pay rent.
What if families were released from the agonizing decisions poverty imposes? What if caregivers had the mental space to focus on parenting? Far too often, services don’t address the root causes of what is seen as child neglect: poverty. Through bold programming and innovative advocacy, we are on a mission to end the need for our foster care services and change the narrative on neglect. This is a necessary alternative to more children entering an overburdened system.
A growing body of research links child maltreatment to economic hardship. A 2017 study by university researchers showed an increase in the minimum wage resulted in a decline in reports of child maltreatment. States with a higher minimum wage have substantially fewer child neglect cases. Innovative policies such as guaranteed income, an increase in the Child Tax Credit and programs aimed at economic stability can affect child and family well-being in ways traditional child welfare strategies have not explored.
Illinois is in a unique position to tackle this challenge. Two large, guaranteed income efforts led by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the work of Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the General Assembly to expand the state’s Earned Income Credit are aimed at ending deep poverty. Also, a strong community of advocates is pushing for change to the system to ensure every family and child can move from surviving to thriving.
We should support families and their children in addressing the various challenges they face. It is too simple to classify certain parents as “good” and others as “bad.” We must recognize poverty plays a significant role in family separation. We must talk about how decades of disinvestment affects communities.
Child well-being is the responsibility of us all, and it’s time to advocate for bold policies increasing economic stability and re-imagining the systems that are failing families. We must come together to radically transform our society into a connected family well-being system.
— Michael Shaver, president and CEO, Children’s Home & Aid, Chicago
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