Guaranteed Income – Modern Applications of an Old Idea in Montgomery and Baltimore City

Almost every guaranteed income recipient is spending the majority of the money on food, other supplies, and bills, but long-term outcomes are still untracked at scale.

small plants sprouting from stacks of coinsGuaranteed income is an idea that has been around for a long time and is currently being studied across the globe, and frankly has been for some time. Americans might know the concept from Thomas Paine in 1776, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 or from Andrew Yang touting a similar idea of universal basic income in the presidential election of 2020.

There has been a resurgence of interest in the idea over the last five years with programs launching across the nation to put this theory to the test. While the methods adopted by various counties and municipalities differ greatly, the majority of actors are trying to prove that the distribution of unconditional funds by a government or non-governmental entity can counter act the adverse effects of poverty, fiscal inequity, and mental health issues in America. Other measures of success include the potential for these types of programs to offset or eliminate costs associated with facilitating existing health and human service programs i.e. nutrition and housing assistance, homeless services, medicaid, etc.

Two programs were launched over the last year in Maryland by County Executive Marc Elrich in Montgomery County and Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott. Both programs began making payments to registered participants just this past summer.

Baltimore City will provide 200 parents between that ages of 18 and 24 with an unconditional cash payment of $1,000 per month over 24 months. Eligible participants must also have an income below 300 percent of the federal poverty level based on their household size. Selections were made through a randomized lottery. $4.8M in American Rescue Plan Act funding will be directly distributed to the recipients, while the program’s administration budget of $500,000 over three years is being funded mainly by philanthropic partners and $100,000 from the Mayor’s Office of Children & Family Success.

The Baltimore City program also outlined a robust approach to their research strategy. The study will be done in partnership with the Center for Guaranteed Income Research and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It is structured to measure both qualitative and quantitative data from three sub-groups, including a control set. Data types will include the recipients mental health, spending, time scarcity, employment, family dynamics, and household food security.

In Montgomery County, the MoCo BOOST program was estimated to cost $6.3M over two years and to fund 300 households with $800 per month for 24 months. Funding for the program is a combination of county appropriations and a $1M donation from the DC-based nonprofit, The Meyer Foundation. Program participants have been selected and consist of 100 households recently served by the Montgomery County Homeless Continuum of Care and 200 participants with at least one child/dependent who had previously sought assistance from the County during the COVID-19 pandemic. The selection method was a randomized application process.

Not as much information regarding the research component was as readily available on the Montgomery program. But it does appear that a report was submitted to the County Council by Summer Fellow Eva Acevedo and encouraged the collection of, “data-based and anecdotal evidence, as both are crucial to fully understanding the effects of guaranteed income on participants’ lives.”

To date, there is a general belief that more intentional, randomized controlled trials are still needed in this research space as well as the collection of data on long-term participant outcomes. A better overall picture of these results could go a long way in winning over opponents. Opposition towards guaranteed income and universal basic income programs is rooted in the idea that recipients will not use the funds in a way that the government sees fit and effective for pulling themselves out of poverty in the long run. There is a fear that instead of using the resources to leverage more stable, long-term outcomes for themselves and their families, the cash will be spent on tobacco, alcohol, and frivolous items. This argument is dismissed by most academics as being based in racial and socio-economic bias, citing that the evidence does not support the claim as expressed by almost all short-term research outcomes to date, but the long-term outcomes still remain in question from an empirical stand point.

On that note, one thing that the evidence does show, almost anywhere you read it, is that the largest percentage of money in these programs is spent on food, then supplies, essential bills, housing payments, schooling, and debt. More qualitative evidence reflects positive changes in health, time scarcity, and stress levels.  From UC Berkley to Stanford, over to Columbia University and on to Oxford, there is a lot of information published and peer-reviewed to this end. Additionally, the body of research spans beyond western-centric resources and a wikipedia page plays host to just some of them, but nothing has broken through the threshold of doubt that looms within the American political structure to activate a large scale shift away from existing programs.

Pew studies show an interesting layer of contradictions in public opinion poles on the topic, which undoubtedly hold a certain political gravity. The majority of Americans believe the government should make sure people have enough to eat and a place to sleep but the majority does not support guaranteed income programs. Throw in the words “welfare” or “spending” and a favorable report will diminish all together. One could, not so surprisingly, conclude that the language used to represent these programs can trigger a seismic shift in public opinion just based on semantics alone. If a poll asked about “welfare” and “spending” verses “anti-poverty” and “food security” an elected official using the respective language could be looking at the difference between winning and losing, clear as day. Political turbulence, turnover, and, probably attention at times, has yet to lend itself to a stable, long-term study on the matter.

In Maryland the next two years constitute the testing phase for these two pilot programs, but, again, the results at that point will be short-term while the long-term, empirical effects will be eagerly awaited. From a press conference last year, County Executive Elrich assured skeptics that, “People don’t have to worry about anybody living on $800 a month and not working.” In Mayor Brandon Scott’s announcement he went a step further, asserting that, “Guaranteed Income programs are proven to improve recipients’ quality of life significantly.”

There is no question that poverty and the challenges that come with it will diminish an individuals ability to think long-term, beyond the next bill or meal. Evolutionary psychology has proven time and time again that when survival is on the line our vision, both physical and conceptual, narrows, acutely. Dreaming and striving for a better life demands the bandwidth to see more than what is directly in front us and in time research could potentially show what kinds of programs will actually unlock that door.

At the MACo Winter Conference session, “The ABCs of LMBs: Investing in Your State-County Partnership,” we will hear from multiple Local Management Board (LMB) and county leaders on how county governments can best work with them to provide critical services for the communities they work in.

MACo’s Winter Conference, “Hit the Ground Running,” will be held at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Hotel in Cambridge, MD from January 4-6, 2023 (with a pre-conference orientation for new county officials on January 3). 

Learn more about MACo’s Winter Conference: 

Close Menu
%d bloggers like this: