Should Basic Income Be the Path to Economic Security?
Artist Briauna Williams’ coloring book “Exhale” created as part of the Artists Respond: People, Place, Prosperity Guaranteed Income narrative change work Courtesy of Springboard for the Arts

Should Basic Income Be the Path to Economic Security?

St. Paul is a national leader in efforts to learn from guaranteed income experiments.

The City of St. Paul launched its People’s Prosperity Project (PPP) between October 2020 and April 2022 to test the outcomes of guaranteed income efforts at the local level.

One of the first programs among many pilots subsequently launched nationally, St. Paul’s PPP provided 150 families with $500 per month in unrestricted support for 18 months. Before being entered into PPP’s random selection process, families had to meet criteria such as having their incomes reduced by the Covid-19 pandemic. City of St. Paul employees were excluded from taking part in the prosperity project.

An outspoken advocate for increasing and stabilizing family incomes, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter is a leader in the national Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. He’s helped foster additional experiments in his city and elsewhere.

The principles that undergird these efforts are that they supplement existing safety-net programs; that families know best what they need; and that trusting families to make their own decisions treats them with greater dignity and empowers them to act on their own behalf. Guaranteed income programs also address the problem that many safety-net supports are restricted to specific expenses, when what families need is spending flexibility.

Springboard for the Arts launched a parallel effort for its artist constituency in 2021 with support from the City of St. Paul. Springboard’s was the first such program to support artists, culture bearers, and creative workers specifically. Twenty-five people living in targeted neighborhoods each received $500 per month. Randomly selected participants were drawn from creatives who had received emergency relief through Springboard during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Springboard’s goals for this work are “to demonstrate the impact of a guaranteed income on creative work, local economies, and neighborhood culture and to demonstrate that artists can be powerful partners in movements for economic justice.”

The International Institute in St. Paul recently announced a new guaranteed income pilot for immigrant households, this one funded by individual donations and grants from private foundations. Twenty-five families, more than half of which are from Afghanistan, will receive $750 per month for 12 months.

In Minneapolis, the city launched a two-year pilot that started over the summer and will run through June 2024. Each of the 200 enrolled families is receiving $500 per month. Participants have annual incomes at or below 50% of the area median income for Minneapolis.

What ties these pilots together is a shared database being built by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Guaranteed Income Research and Stanford University’s Basic Income Lab. This research aims to demonstrate the impact of unrestricted dollars for individuals and families, while tallying the specific expenses that families use the stipend money to cover. More than 30 such income pilots in the United States are collecting comparable data that will be shared on the Stanford Basic Income Lab website

Part of the aim of the Stanford initiative is to see if collective results can build a positive case for basic income. Philosophically, the Lab and its partners have stated: “The evidence gathered through pilots tells the story of those struggling to achieve economic security and helps inform the conversation about guaranteed income policy.”

Project authors further say: “Unconditional cash has a range of important benefits for participants and their communities, including improved health, income security, and employment. And while the economic benefits are most obvious, positive impacts on well-being, belonging, and self-worth are also critical to our understanding of guaranteed income.”

Of the data collected, nearly 6,000 participants across the U.S. were spending their money on retail goods (40%), food (28%), transportation (9%), housing (8%), and financial transaction fees (5%). Some have been able to pay off debt or save for emergencies, while others used these dollars to seek and find employment.

A series of new projects was launched in recent months by artists in Springboard’s pilot. Project leaders want to demonstrate “the root causes that lead to the need for guaranteed income and the impact of guaranteed income on the families and communities that are supported by it,” according to Springboard’s plans.

Through music, poetry, dance, public art, and more, five artists are being supported to uplift the value of these pilots in ways that are as inspiring as they are instructive. In seeking out these storytelling efforts, you’ll find a window that may just be more compelling than the data alone. (Learn more at the project’s website at 

It’s a safe bet that you will be hearing more about the efficacy and impact of guaranteed income in the coming years.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media, and philanthropic sectors.

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