News: Quick Takes

Durham poised to send $500 checks to ex-cons in basic income pilot

Lucky Strike tower in Durham, N.C. Photo by Maya Reagan, Carolina Journal
Lucky Strike tower in Durham, N.C. Photo by Maya Reagan, Carolina Journal

The city of Durham is set to give monthly checks worth $500 to 115 formerly incarcerated people. The move is part of a nationwide basic income experiment, primarily bankrolled by Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey.

Applications for the program open on Wednesday, Jan. 5, and checks will be sent throughout the year. Recipients will be randomly selected to receive $500 per month in unconditional, cash transfer payments. They must be residents of Durham and 18 or older. They also must have been incarcerated in a state or federal prison at some point after November 2016, and have income at or below 60% of the Area Median Income.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Durham’s median household income in 2015-19 was $60,958 per year.

The pilot program is being run out of the Center for Guaranteed Income Research at the University of Pennsylvania, in partnership with a grant from Mayors for Guaranteed Income. Dorsey gave $15 million in December 2020 to get the project off the ground. 

In the Bull City, the program is being run through StepUp Durham, a nonprofit seeking to connect job seekers with employment readiness training, personalized job coaching, employer referrals, and other support services. In August, the Durham City Council voted to authorize StepUp as the administrator of the grant.

Paige Terryberry, senior analyst for fiscal policy at the John Locke Foundation, says programs like the one in Durham are dangerous.

“Private charity is certainly laudable, yet mega-donors like Jack Dorsey can’t fund these programs indefinitely,” she said. “The goal is to have the government fund universal basic income — and government altruism doesn’t exist as the government has nothing to give that it has not taken by force from another. UBI experiments address a symptom of a hurting economy rather than the disease itself.”

According to StepUp Durham’s website, the purpose of the program is “to evaluate guaranteed income’s effects on recidivism and re-incarceration, employment, economic security, and income volatility, as well as physical functioning, mental health, stress, and coping, parenting, housing, and interactions with other institutional systems.”

“(The year) 2020 has exacerbated economic insecurity, not only for those who are system-impacted but for many others across our city,” said Durham Mayor Steve Schewel in a statement. “I’m extremely proud of the many things Durham is doing to uplift vulnerable populations of residents, including this pilot program.”

The $500-per-month checks will begin going out in March. The checks will be arriving shortly after the federal government’s expanded Child Tax Credit expired at the end of 2021. Those payments were worth between $250 and $300 a month for qualifying dependents.

Unlike the Child Tax Credit, the $500 checks in Durham are not earmarked exclusively for families with children. That means a single individual could qualify.

StepUp Durham also voiced support for making basic income a federal priority: “Budgets are moral documents, and it’s time for the U.S. government to prioritize everyday Americans and their economic dignity. There’s (sic) a number of ways to pay for guaranteed income, from a sovereign wealth fund in which citizens benefit from shared national resources like the Alaska Permanent Fund, to bringing tax rates on the wealthiest Americans to their 20th-century historical averages.”