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Baltimore City

Baltimore’s guaranteed income program aims to lift young parents out of poverty: ‘I have real-life bills’

Kayla Brown has struggled to keep a job since the birth of her son last year because she can’t afford child care.

She once left her job as a hospital food service worker to take care of her 1-year-old son, Antonio Barnwell.

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Brown, a single mother, was elated to learn this summer that she was among 200 people selected in Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s guaranteed income pilot program. The initiative, launched this year, assists young parents in financial distress.

Brown was picked in a lottery and will receive $1,000 every month for a maximum of two years. The first payment was in August.

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“I have real-life bills. I have to make sure I have a roof over my head,” said Brown, 23. “It was hard before the extra income — still a little rocky, but not too much now that I am receiving the payments.”

Shakeema Johnson, 22, a single mother of a 6-year-old daughter, is one of the participants in Mayor Brandon Scott’s guaranteed income pilot program that is designed to assist young parents financially.

Brown is hardly the only one benefitting from the Baltimore program. Shakeema Johnson lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her 7-year-old daughter on Franklintown Road in West Baltimore.

Also a single mother, Johnson said she previously worked two jobs as a server and didn’t have time to spend with her daughter, Jordyn. She added that she uses her monthly guaranteed income payments to help with her car loan, rent and her daughter’s clothes, among other bills.

“I don’t want to worry about my bills,” said Johnson, 22.

Scott is among more than 100 mayors across the country participating in the Mayors for Guaranteed Income initiative. He worked with groups such as the nonprofit CASH Campaign of Maryland (Creating Assets, Savings and Hope), on the details. CASH operates the program.

“Every child deserves access to the resource they need, not just [to] survive but [to] thrive,” Scott said during a webinar about the guaranteed income program in October. “We can’t just talk about equity. We must practice it through policy and strategic programming. This includes investing in young parents and children by providing financial relief.”

Participants in the pilot program must be parents living in Baltimore City, be 18 to 24 years old, and make less than three times the federal poverty level, currently $18,310 for a family of two, according to healthcare.gov.

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Participants in the pilot program launched in August are 92% African American, 3% multiracial, 2% white, 2% Latino and 1% Asian, said Robin McKinney, co-founder and CEO of CASH. Most participants reside in areas with a large Black population, such as East and West Baltimore.

She said that because the monthly payments of $1,000 are below the $16,000-per-year gift threshold set by the IRS, they are not subject to taxation. Additionally, she said that even though some participants lost other forms of government assistance, such as food stamps, when they joined the program, the new benefits more than made up the difference.

The program is being paid for with $4.8 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds the city received during the pandemic. The Mayor’s Office of Recovery Programs must report rescue plan spending to the U.S. Treasury Department. The mayor’s office said 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 notion of guaranteed income can be polarizing, but it has been increasingly a topic of conversation among progressive policy leaders.

A narrow majority of Americans oppose the idea. A 2020 Pew Research survey found 54% of U.S. adults say they don’t support a universal basic income of about $1,000 per month for all adult citizens, whether or not they work. However, 45% favored such an idea.

“There is a long-held perception that low-income residents, upon receiving an influx of unearned cash, will spend it in ways that are counterproductive. … However, I think this [is] rooted in stereotypes and not realities,” said Eric Stokan, an assistant professor of political science and an affiliate faculty at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s School of Public Policy.

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Some see guaranteed income as a mechanism to alleviate poverty, Stokan said. For example, he said, Nobel Prize-winning economist Abhijit Banerjee’s research found that a basic income can alleviate numerous social issues, such as access to healthy food and health care and improve students’ academic performance.

Other jurisdictions — including Montgomery County; Newark, New Jersey; and Alexandria and Richmond in Virginia — have launched similar programs. The amounts those jurisdictions distributed per recipient ranged from $500 to more than $1,000 per month.

In Montgomery County, 300 people receive $800 per month through its guaranteed income program, which serves the unhoused and previous assistance applicants, said Montgomery County Council member Will Jawando, a Democrat.

Recipients are 53% Black, 35% Latino, 5% white, 2% Asian and the remainder is distributed among multiracial and other ethnicities. Payments have been made to them since this summer and will continue for two years, said Jawando, whose legislation created the program.

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All of the funding to date is from county money, according to Jawando’s staff. The program’s anticipated cost is $6,836,000 with a $1.9 million appropriation from the council this year and $1 million from the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based Meyer Foundation, according to his staff. The council also approved $2.5 million for 2023. An additional $1.2 million will be needed to cover the anticipated cost.

“I thought this was a perfect time to launch a pilot like this — coming out of the pandemic in the midst of the economic hardships that many people were seeing,” he said.

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For Brown, she said that around the time that the Baltimore program started sending her payments, she and her mother were forced to move.

She now lives in the basement of a friend’s house in the Edmondson Village area in Southwest Baltimore.

She started working this fall as a student assistant for Baltimore City Public Schools, earning about $500 a week. She pays $450 a month for rent, including utilities, and about $400 for storage.

She said the payments from the program mostly would be used to take care of her son.

“We’d be homeless if [Scott] didn’t do this; huge thank you to the mayor,” she said.

For the record

A previous version of this story referred incorrectly to the Squeegee Collaborative program. It is a conditional income program. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.


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