Is a universal basic income experiment coming to Philadelphia?

The skyline is reflected in the Schuylkill River as the sun rises over Philadelphia, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

The skyline is reflected in the Schuylkill River as the sun rises over Philadelphia, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Philadelphia may begin testing a cash subsidy pilot in 2020, city policymakers and nonprofit leaders revealed Tuesday at a press conference.

“I bet you there’s an appropriation for [a cash subsidy pilot] starting July 1,” said Bill Golderer, the CEO of United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey in an interview after a City Council press conference on the anti-poverty programs. “Basic income, direct cash transfer, some experimentation with that will be piloted, but I’m not sure at what scale or for how many people.”

With the goal of lifting 100,000 Philadelphians out of poverty in the next four years, the Poverty Action Plan — which brings together city officials and local business and nonprofit leaders like United Way — did not come accompanied by specific legislation or a price tag.

Instead of offering details, City Council presented a potpourri of policies and budget priorities likely to be thrashed out over the course of the city’s coming negotiations. Mayor Jim Kenney will unveil his budget proposal on Thursday.

“You don’t want to put that number on the table early on in the process until you know exactly what your objective is,” Clarke said. “People too frequently throw money out there and you actually sometimes get people to kind of walk away from you because they’re not in a position to provide that support.”

Golderer made his prediction just hours after local officials floated a basic income for Philadelphia as one of a handful of new policies in City Council’s new anti-poverty plan, spearheaded by City Council President Darrell Clarke.

Some of the proposals that council introduced have already been rolled out by the Kenney administration. Others are collaborative plans that would require aid from Harrisburg Republicans, while some represent genuinely new ideas, like the Philadelphia Basic Income.

Universal basic income is a no-strings-attached cash stipend that has recently gained traction in national policy debates. In 1982, Alaska started giving all citizens an annual check from an oil-revenue backed state investment fund. Stockton, California is currently experimenting with giving $500 a month to a handful of randomly-selected residents who live in neighborhoods at or below the city’s median income.

The proposal Philadelphia is considering sounds likely to be an experiment like Stockton’s, perhaps even more targeted than that of the California city.

“As it relates to basic income program, it is a big idea that requires the private sector, United Way and other folks to manage it,” said Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, one of the principal architects of the anti-poverty proposals. “There has to be an agreement, then you can outline who is going to get it. If you ask me, returning citizens, foster kids [for example].”

Quiñones-Sánchez has long been one of City Council’s more ambitious policymakers, creating the Philadelphia Land Bank and pursuing mandatory inclusionary zoning instead of only focusing on her district’s parochial concerns.

The action plan includes both expansions of her previous initiatives — such as empowering the Land Bank to manage tax liens on vacant land — and hints at innovative land-use experiments that would test ways to encourage the private sector to innovate with smaller dwelling units and modular housing development.

“I’m willing to look at some rooming situations. I’m willing to look at some group living,  but they have to be piloted,” Quiñones-Sánchez said. “There’s a lot of District Council people who do not like this, but they’re also District Council people that are willing to try pilots. I’m a district councilperson, and I am willing to be innovative. I think Councilwoman [Jamie] Gauthier understands issues around affordability.”

The plan also makes mention of creating an “Affordable Housing Labor Rate.” This would set a pay standard for Philadelphia’s building trades unions when they work on income-restricted units, which often cost up to $400,000 a piece to build. With price tags of that magnitude, critics note that the creation of publicly subsidized affordable housing is severely hampered in the city.

The Poverty Action Plan presented by City Council includes additional proposals like “job training stipends,” which would provide financial support to low-income Philadelphians while they are learning new skills to win better-paid work.

Some of the other programs mentioned in the plan include rent subsidies to help the poorest households avoid eviction, an ambitious idea that the Kenney administration started rolling out this January. Anti-eviction programs are listed in the plan as well, many of which have already been proposed by the Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and are pending implementation.

Golderer said that the plan includes some low-hanging fruit that people across the political spectrum can agree on: ensuring low-income people are connected with federal benefits for which they are eligible.

But issues like basic income would be more complicated, both politically and technically.

“Once you get into more sophisticated levers you can pull, you don’t just have to prove the efficacy of these policies, but navigate people’s perceptions,” Golderer said. “There’s a great deal of energy that needs to go into this and horse-trading that needs to happen.”

WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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