Boston officials are considering guaranteeing cash payments to lift the city's poorest residents, but questions still remain about the cost and sustainability of such a program.
City councilors held a hearing Monday to discuss piloting a guaranteed basic income program with officials from Mayor Michelle Wu's Cabinet.
"This is something that is not only very near and dear to my heart, but I think incredibly important if we're going to create a city where all of our children and all of our families can thrive, particularly creating a pathway up from poverty for our most vulnerable constituents," said Councilor Kendra Lara, one of the lead sponsors of the hearing.
The docket offered by Councilors Lara, Ricardo Arroyo, Liz Breadon, Gabriela Coletta, Ruthzee Louijeune, Brian Worrell and Sharon Durkan, says 18.9 percent of Boston residents, and one in three children in the city, are living in poverty.
There are no specifics to a pilot program yet. Supporting councilors would like to see the income program cover families living below the poverty line, but administration officials warned that they could not yet predict how many people it would cover, how much it would cost, where those funds would come from, and how long the city could sustain those payments.
There are several dozen pilot programs in cities testing the efficacy of a guaranteed income program. In Cambridge, low-income families below 250 percent of the federal poverty level are receiving $500 per month for 18 months, a commitment which has cost the city $22 million.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Chelsea also provided direct financial support to residents, providing $400 a month to 2,000 families. The program was so successful, city officials said, they brought it back earlier this year.
In evaluating a potential pilot in Boston, Elijah Miller, director of policy at Boston's Office of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion, said they were looking to other programs already in place.
"What have they done? How have the outcomes fared? Many of the findings are still preliminary," Miller said. "We are evaluating what kind of scope is feasible. What would the costs look like based on that? What do different levels of income mean for families? What is the difference between receiving $600 a month versus receiving $1,000 a month? What kind of impacts then bleed into the labor market? Are there any impacts on inflation?"
He continued, "Many of these questions we don't have answers to yet."
City Councilor Ed Flynn said he was worried about giving out large amounts of money during "uncertain economic times.".
He added that businesses are concerned about the economic outlook and that the city needs to prioritize creating jobs and paying better salaries for city employees to find and maintain talent.
"We would need significant funds for a universal basic income program. At this time, I don't think we should experiment with the program in these uncertain economic times," Flynn said. "We also need to address our existing responsibilities before starting with a new program that would require a tremendous amount of funding."
Segun Idowu, chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, said a potential program model could rely on philanthropic donors.
Idowu also said his office's economic analysis of the pilot would focus on what it would cost the city to implement a program -- but also possible economic advantages of putting more money into Bostonians' pockets.
"We would also want to include projections on the economic impact on Boston overall, that should we provide or create a program like this, what the long-term impact on Boston's economy overall could be by lifting people out of poverty," Idowu said.
Coletta, who was one of the seven councilors who offered the hearing docket, said the cash payment program is "not a new radical concept."
"There's been some really interesting data that has come forth, that when we give people the dignity of choice, they typically choose to survive and to pay down debts," Coletta said. "I do think that there's a lot of folks that are just surviving and on the brink, and this could be a way to give them relief."