Universal basic income program to give 100 Ulster households $500 per month

Universal basic income, in which citizens receive a regular stipend from the government to cover necessary expenses, will receive a test run in Ulster County under a pilot program that will deliver $500 to 100 Ulster households from May 2021 through April 2022, for a total of $6000 per family.

The funding comes from the county’s Project Resilience, which has raised more than $2.5 million in donations to assist with pandemic relief. Because that funding came through donations, this pilot won’t use any taxpayer dollars. Partnering on the project are the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Guaranteed Income, Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley and Ulster Savings Bank.

So far, more than 3500 residents have applied for the program at covid19.ulstercountyny.gov/project-resilience. To be eligible, a household must earn $46,900 per year or less. The deadline to apply is March 15.

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Selections will be made by the University of Pennsylvania in a random, but geographically distributed manner. County officials won’t be part of the selection process.

Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan said he’s been thinking of a universal basic income (UBI) program since the beginning of the pandemic. That was when the county established Project Resilience, which has mostly focused on providing food to local families by partnering with restaurants and food pantries.

“In doing that work, it became so clear how massive and severe the need was, with thousands of our families signing up to get food – many of them saying they’ve never needed help before like this,” said Ryan. “As we started to meet that need with other Project Resilience programs, I was trying to figure out other innovative, creative ways we could get help to people. The concept of universal basic income is an exciting and promising one.”

There will be an information session via Zoom on the program March 10 from 6-7 p.m.

How it will work

While Project Resilience is the source of the money that will go to recipients, other organizations also have important roles to play. For instance, Ulster Savings Bank will set up bank accounts for the participating households and give them debit cards. Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley will help fund the research and data collection side of the program.

Data on spending will be recorded by Ulster Savings Bank and sent to the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Guaranteed Income for analysis.

“Most of the running of the actual program – including who’s participating, the analysis and research as the pilot unfolds – will be done by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Guaranteed Income,” said Ryan. “There will be a dedicated research fellow from the University of Pennsylvania focused solely on the Ulster County project.”

Ryan said the large number of applicants indicates there is both interest in and need for such a program.

“The immediate impact of this will be near life-changing for the 100 families who are now going to have significantly more financial security at this really difficult time,” said Ryan. “We trust individuals and families to take care of themselves and know how to better than any kind of bureaucratic, rigid program does.”

He imagines the program will validate a new, innovative way of helping those in need, which will compare favorably with existing social service programs that can lead to a cycle of poverty and negative stigma.

“People sometimes refuse a job in fear of losing benefits,” said Ryan. “It’s backwards and not how the programs are designed to run. My hope is we help prove a new approach that can be used across the state or across the country.”

One key aspect of the new approach is its universality.

“You don’t have some people saying well why did they get it and I don’t,” said Ryan. “Everyone gets it. It’s elegant in that it’s simple and there’s no needs testing or reason for folks to feel ashamed, embarrassed or like they’re lesser for needing help because everyone is getting it.”

An idea whose time has come?

In a nation in which the Protestant work ethic runs deep, a program that sends citizens money for nothing strikes many as somehow wrong. Those who would accept government programs tailored to meet a specific essential need, like food stamps, public housing, or healthcare for poor children can sometimes feel an instinctive revulsion toward a system that would send money that could be spent on anything to both the rich and poor. (While pilot programs, like this one, focus on households in the most need, the “universal” in UBI is an intrinsic part of any large-scale implementation plan.)

Count Ulster County Legislature Minority Leader Ken Ronk among the skeptics. We were unable to reach him last week despite several attempts to do so, but he told the Daily Freeman that he believes the large sum of money would be better spent elsewhere and that the legislature should have been informed about the pilot before it was announced publicly.

The idea of UBI is not new – it was championed by Thomas Paine in 1797 and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 – but it has received a renewed focus thanks to the 2020 presidential campaign of tech entrepreneur and Hudson Valley resident Andrew Yang. In that campaign, Yang assumed the role of a prophet of a near future in which automation and globalization will render increasing numbers of Americans economically useless, or at least not useful enough to achieve a middle-class standard of living from the sweat of their brows alone. Meanwhile, in this vision, spectacular wealth would continue to accrue to the ultrarich and the elite managers and engineers who can make their enterprises of software, finance, and global trade function, which leaves most of us out.

The experience of the pandemic seemed to bear this out; while billionaires, Wall Street and tech companies reach new heights, thousands of small businesses closed, millions were put out of work, and the poor were disproportionately represented among the more than half-million Americans who have died. Amid this, unprecedented infusions of federal money in the form of unemployment subsidies and stimulus payments offered a much-needed lifeline. The redistribution of wealth from those who were profiting off the conditions of the pandemic to those who bearing its brunt enjoyed widespread support, and created a precedent.

Hudson’s experience 

In October of last year, the city of Hudson launched a UBI pilot program that will provide recipients $500 per month to 25 recipients over five years.. The program, called “HudsonUP,” was done in partnership with Spark of Hudson and Andrew Yang’s Humanity Forward. As in Ulster, eligibility was based on need: in this case, an income of no more than $35,153.

“Things are going really well,” said Joan Hunt, who is leading the program. “Of course we see immediate wins with folks that didn’t currently have this level of unrestricted funds and now they do. The little expenses that may have put someone over the top before are now more manageable.”

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So far, the Hudson pilot has seen people use the money to save, pay off debt, or simply buy their kids nicer presents for Christmas.

“It varies,” said Hunt. “It’s like anything else that people with resources would do. That’s what people who typically didn’t have this money are doing.”

Hudson’s pilot was made possible with a community advisory group that was formed early on, which engaged with residents and encouraged those eligible to apply. HudsonUp also offers financial literacy programming through its partnership bank that recipients can attend on a voluntary basis. Hunt believes any other municipality, including Ulster, that kick starts its own pilot should “encourage authentic community engagement early on.”

Hunt imagines that the pilots will offer both short-term and long-term benefits that will radiate out from recipients to the community at-large.

“Obviously if someone is less stressed about making their bills or being in a significant amount of debt, that impacts their relationship with family and their broader community and being able to do things they may have not had time to do because they were working two or three jobs.”

Studies surrounding the Hudson pilot will consider these broader ripple effects and how “it’s changing human relationships essentially and reducing stress.”

The selection process used a weighted lottery to better target marginalized community members.

“As universal basic income programs become operationalized in communities and we can’t necessarily reach the scale, we are obligated to address those that are most in need first,” said Hunt. “Universal is the goal but we’re not there yet.”

Organizers are exploring adding a second cohort of 25 more participants, but they need to secure additional funding.

‘An outburst of creativity’

Bearsville resident Keiko Sono has been studying universal basic income programs since 2016. She came to the issue from the point of view of an artist. She felt like the local artist community was being underpaid, but continued to create despite this, leading to positive effects overall for the community in the form of local art but financial struggles for the artists themselves. She studied different solutions before settling on UBI. In 2018, she became a delegate for Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign, educating voters on UBI in particular. Since then, she has continued to advocate for the issue, administering a dedicated local Facebook group.

“Universal basic income is not a panacea, but I think it’s the indispensable step towards a more just and productive model that will maximize the creative output – and not just artists,” said Sono. “The Hudson Valley community would really seed an outburst of creativity if we had something like the universal basic income program.”

She noticed in her own community that people began to take the idea of a UBI more seriously due to the Covid-19 pandemic. She said UBI would have a similar effect as the unemployment subsidies had during the pandemic.

“I had a steady income and I was able to launch a podcast that I wanted to do for years or years, but couldn’t because I didn’t have time or money,” said Sono.

Sono has connected with a number of UBI gurus – at the end of February, she had Jim Pugh, co-founder of the Universal Income Project, and Owen Poindexter, a writer focused on finance, on her podcast “Intrinsic,” to discuss the economic model. More recently, she had Ulster County Comptroller March Gallagher, RUPCO CEO Kevin O’Connor and UBI advocate Scott Santens on the podcast to discuss Ulster’s pilot. Ryan and Hudson Mayor Kamal Johnson will appear on a future podcast.

Like Ryan, Sono said UBI could replace and improve upon existing social service programs.

“There’s stigma attached to welfare, they make you jump through hoops, and there is a dignity issue – people don’t like to think of themselves as a welfare recipient even if they have no choice,” said Sonos. “It misses a lot of people. And, it traps people in poverty because of eligibility. I know a lot of people on welfare who spend their time considering how to not make too much money so they can prove eligibility.”

Sono believes a universal approach would be unifying.

“What if the country said to everyone, we got your back,” said Sono. “How unifying would that be? Ulster County is different from the other pilots … this county has rural areas, which I think is rare for a universal basic income pilot. It has a mixture of liberal, progressive, conservative, moderate. That’s different from other pilots. I’m excited about this pilot because of that.”

Like Ryan, she believes the stability and security of this economic model will be life changing, allowing people to focus on long-term planning.

Beyond the pilot

Ryan said if the program goes well and the county can secure funding, it would consider expanding it in the future.

“I would love to be a part of a wider discussion of how might we do this on a larger scale,” said Ryan. “The only way to do that is to replace or improve the existing programs, which I think most people would agree are not perfect and have room for improvement.”

He’s optimistic about how it will turn out.

“I recognize this is a new thing and we’re taking a bold step here,” said Ryan. “We want to learn. We’re trying this and we will see how it goes. I think it will go well.”