Yet local officials, flush with millions in extra cash thanks to the American Rescue Plan Act, are preparing a plan to do just that: Starting this fall, they will give $500 debit cards each month to 150 families, with no strings attached — part of a growing wave of places in the United States and beyond embracing the idea.
“We have built an entire apparatus of bureaucracy around how we administer programs designed to address the impacts of poverty,” Mayor Justin Wilson (D) said. “In some ways, the philosophy around it is: Let’s cut all that out of there and just provide money.”
Alexandria expects to receive nearly $60 million over the next two years from the Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion federal relief package intended to offset some of the financial harm caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to its classification as an independent city, Alexandria’s boost from the plan was unusually high compared with most other municipalities of a similar size.
Wilson said the city’s major goal for using the money, in addition to updating storm water and flooding infrastructure, was building resiliency for what he called the “working poor” — residents who are officially above the poverty line but struggling to get by.
These individuals, often working minimum-wage or low-paid service jobs, were already particularly susceptible to economic instability before the coronavirus, he said. The pandemic, then, “was this macro shock that hit all the folks who were living on that edge.”
The city’s two-year guaranteed-income pilot will provide families with case management as they decide how to use the money — whether to address housing needs, pursue more schooling, find a job that offers better career advancement or support their children, Wilson said.
To participate in the pilot, residents must make about 30 to 40 percent of area median income and be earning money in some way outside the program. Another set of residents will serve as a “control” group that does not receive funding, Kate Garvey, director of the city’s Department of Community and Human Services, said in a virtual information session earlier this month.
Besides $3 million for that program, the city will spend about $2.83 million to improve early-childhood care for working mothers; $1.12 million to scale an “upskilling” program, launched earlier in the pandemic, that offers English-as-a-second-language classes and digital literacy training; and $2.5 million to shore up food security initiatives, such as large-scale distribution events and deliveries for seniors.
Dana Wedeles, a special assistant to the Alexandria city manager, said many of the Rescue Plan projects previously went through a city planning process but were delayed because of the pandemic. Others, including the guaranteed-income pilot, had been floated as ideas around City Hall but were never acted on.
The final list of projects was drafted with about 1,300 comments from city residents before a final vote by the Alexandria City Council last month.
Annetta Catchings, the Republican nominee for mayor in the November election, appeared to frame guaranteed income as a socialist policy. She suggested that the $3 million would not benefit longtime Alexandria residents and could be better used to increase wages for firefighters.
“There’s absolutely no accountability and no minimum requirement regarding length of time lived here in our city,” she wrote on Twitter. “Even a kindergartener can connect those dots.”
But Wilson said that besides helping families get on firmer financial ground, the pilot may also help Alexandria reshape its own policies: Researchers will examine results and more broadly reconsider how the city approaches poverty reduction programs, including housing and child-care assistance.
“It could be that we find out that it’s a lot easier, and perhaps even more efficient, to just give people money and let them make the decisions about what is going to be most impactful for their family,” he said. “But we’ll see.”
Michael Tubbs, the founder of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a national network of mayors who support such programs, said about a dozen cities across the country — including relatively prosperous ones like Alexandria — had dedicated some portion of their federal stimulus funds to test out the idea.
“People are still being left behind,” he said. “Even in areas of influence, there’s pockets of intense inequality. It’s a moral dilemma for all of us that we have to solve. I’m glad that leadership in Alexandria sees the entire community.”
As mayor of Stockton, Calif., Tubbs pioneered the nation’s first guaranteed-income program, distributing $500 monthly checks to 125 of the city’s residents. The results were promising: According to a study published this year, participants in the pilot saw improved mental health outcomes and were twice as likely to gain full-time employment.
Closer to the D.C. area, a few others have followed suit.
The city of Richmond said last fall that it was working with a local foundation to give monthly checks to 18 families who make too much to qualify for safety net benefits but who “still do not make a living wage.” In Baltimore, a group of nonprofit leaders handpicked by the mayor is designing the city’s own trial of guaranteed income.
Kate Stewart, mayor of Takoma Park, Md., said she also hopes to use Rescue Plan money to pilot the idea, though no plans are in place. Both she and College Park, Md., Mayor Patrick Wojahn are members of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, which is partnering with Alexandria.
In Alexandria, Wilson said several other Rescue Plan projects on the city’s agenda aimed to simultaneously tackle poverty and gaps in the labor market — by training low-income workers to shore up the city’s economy.
Many of Alexandria’s small businesses, he said, have been struggling to attract and hold on to workers, a reality that may reflect the prohibitively high cost of housing in Northern Virginia for lower-income workers, particularly in the innermost D.C. suburbs.
“If they have a choice between working for $14 an hour in Prince William and Loudoun,” he said, “versus having a long commute and then working for $14 or $15 an hour in Alexandria, they’re going to choose to be closer to home.”
An early-childhood care program will take a similar approach to a particularly crucial industry. Millions of working mothers, particularly those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, have left the workforce and face a host of challenges to returning — chief among them having someone to take care of their kids.
“Essentially nothing can operate if we do not have child care,” Wilson said, “because we don’t have a workforce if we do not have child care.” Even during the peak of the pandemic, he recalled, some health-care workers were unable to deploy to hospitals and testing centers because their day-care facilities were closed.
This project will look to attract more early-childhood care providers, increase pay, and potentially fund an initiative with local community colleges where potential employees can be accredited and earn associate’s degrees.
“Folks who can get into that field and stay in that field and make a living wage in that field,” Wilson said, “they’re going to stay in that field.”