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Baltimore needs jobs, not ‘guaranteed income’ | COMMENTARY

FILE -- Michael Tubbs, mayor of Stockton, Calif., the country's first city to experiment with guaranteed income, at his office April 23, 2018. Tubbs is leading a push to expand the idea with a new initiative, Mayors for a Guaranteed Income.
FILE -- Michael Tubbs, mayor of Stockton, Calif., the country's first city to experiment with guaranteed income, at his office April 23, 2018. Tubbs is leading a push to expand the idea with a new initiative, Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. (Jason Henry/The New York Times)

Earlier this month, Mayor Brandon Scott committed Baltimore to a pilot program that would test the efficacy of a guaranteed income for Baltimore’s struggling families, described as “direct, recurring cash payments.” According to the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income website, the funds have no requirements attached to them, work or otherwise, and are “meant to supplement, rather than replace, the existing social safety net” and to “be a tool for racial and gender equity.

Baltimore’s test pilot would give 100 to 200 households $500 to $1,000 per month for as long as 24 months. For people who are unemployed, that’s the equivalent of a job paying $6,000 to $12,000 per year, or $2.88 to $5.77 per hour for a 40-hour workweek — well below the minimum wage.

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No doubt about it, as short-term emergency support, any amount of money will be helpful. It is not, however, the “bold solution,” Mayor Scott described. It’s neither bold, nor is it a solution to anything.

Given a choice, it’s always better for government to give people jobs rather than money. As both an academic and practical question, I thought it had been resolved decades ago, but apparently not. Unfortunately, guaranteed income programs are oblivious to the fundamental causes of the negative economic development that have trashed the neighborhoods where the program’s residents live.

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The problem is not a lack of income, per se. Insufficient income is a symptom of the nature of one’s involvement in the economy. The problem Mayor Scott should be addressing is un- and underemployment.

He needs to bring these families into an economy in which they can acquire the requisite skills and experience necessary to fend for themselves — with the potential for them to do even better. Help them get a good job if they’re unemployed and a better one if they are underemployed. It’s not only the smart and right thing to do from an economic and social perspective, but from a fiscal point of view, engaging people in a viable city economy is far less expensive than just giving them money.

Let’s make a shortlist of some of the principal impediments to bringing these families into the city economy.

1. Lack of education. Unfortunately, it takes time to give these targeted families the formal schooling they need. We need to improve public education, of course, but not as part of a program for economic assistance.

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2. Lack of training. A good, government-subsidized program that provides on-the-job training can take care of that.

3. Lack of transportation. There are already hundreds of jobs — even today, in the city and suburbs — for which [thousands of] un- and underemployed city residents can qualify right now, particularly with on-the-job training. The problem is getting people to those workplaces. Using existing public transportation, particularly to and from jobs in the suburbs, is not a good option. On the other hand, the city could easily guarantee the purchase of inexpensive vehicles used by residents to commute to work, with the affordable payments to be deducted from their paychecks.

Unfortunately, even when the economy recovers, there won’t be enough jobs for this segment of the city’s workforce. As quickly and emphatically as possible, Mayor Scott needs to use the city’s vast inventory of vacant and abandoned properties to encourage private sector neighborhood development that will create substantial numbers of more conveniently located job openings where the need for employment is most critical.

4. Difficulty identifying and applying for suitable employment opportunities. We need better tools to help un- and underemployed people connect to jobs for which they would qualify — as well as more incentives for employers to hire city residents.

5. Lack of high-quality child care for single parent families and for households in which both parents need to work.

Officials will tell us that the city already has various programs that address the items on this shortlist. No doubt, Baltimore has programs, but they’re not the right ones. If they were, the city wouldn’t be plagued by persistent high un- and underemployment and the mayor wouldn’t have to resort to something as desperate as just giving struggling families money.

Giving low income households money as a cure to any systemic or structural economic problem is lazy, unimaginative government. The good news is that it’s almost never too late to rethink the economic development of the city’s economy.

As for the “national fight for equity” mentioned in the city’s news release for the pilot program, giving people money doesn’t encourage equity. Jobs do.

Les Cohen (les@writeaway.us) is a writer in Ellicott City specializing in urban and regional economics.

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