Benchmarking Rochester’s guaranteed basic income program with Austin

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Last week, applications closed for the City of Rochester’s guaranteed basic income program. More than 16,000 people applied for only 351 spots. Those who are randomly selected will receive $500 a month — federally funded with the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) — for the next 12 months. No strings attached.

Rochester is joining the ranks of dozens of cities over the past few years. In New York, Columbia County’s Hudson has a five-year guaranteed income program. Down south, New Orleans gave out $350 monthly to 125 people aged 16 to 24. Across the country, Mayors for a Guaranteed Income advocate for long-term programs.

Rochester’s program is expected to kick off in the next few weeks. City representative Liliana Ruiz says that the city is currently cleaning up their data for their research partner. She and her team are deleting duplicates and ensuring all applications are complete before sending them to the University of Notre Dame’s Lab for Educational Opportunities.

The lab will be splitting the program into two batches, and randomly selecting participants. The first half of participants will be notified in mid-July, and the second in mid-September. But the time between getting invited to participate and actually receiving a paycheck?

“More or less, if it all goes according to how we’re planning it — Two months,” Ruiz said.

While they’ll be studying the progress of the program closely alongside Notre Dame, they may already know what to expect. Principal Researcher with Urban Institute Mary Bogle said that nationally, data from an individual program repeats itself.

“The data, the results we’re getting are extremely consistent,” she said.

Bogle is spearheading the research on the pilot program down in Austin, Texas. There, participants were not chosen randomly – they were invited to the program based on housing insecurity issues. The 135 families involved get $1,000 a month for a year. Bogle says she and the other researchers weren’t surprised to find where the money went.

“So one of the housing outcomes we see related to all this is that people- many pilot participants caught up on rent,” Bogle said. “We see like a 23% increase in people saying they’ve been able to catch up on rent.”

They’re also working on getting steady transportation, participating in job training, eating more frequently and eating better foods, and spending more resources on their children.

“[Nationally] The two top outcomes are reduction in hardship like food and security and improvements in mental health,” Bogle said.  “And I see both of those as stabilizing outcomes — they’re sort of intermediate outcomes on the way to economic mobility.” 

But as much as researchers are interested in what they’re doing, they’re also interested in what participants are not doing with the money.

“They’re not lying around on the sofa, eating bon bons,” Bogle said.

Bogle says that in her research following the lives of those given a guaranteed basic income, wasting the money isn’t a problem at all.

“It’s kind of a useless concern, to be honest. Because we know that most people — low income or not — also spend the majority of their money supporting their rent, their food, their children,” she said.

Bogle emphasized that spending money on temptation goods like alcohol, cigarettes, or candy looks the same across income brackets.

“It’s not that they don’t spend their money on temptation goods,”  Bogle said. “They just don’t spend them at any higher rate than any of the rest of us do.”

Six months in to their program, Bogle says that the results are showing a trend towards economic stability, and she expects the same for Rochester. But she did air a concern about Rochester’s program – it’s funding is limited.

In Austin, a group of nonprofits raised the funding to put on the income program, and, if the city decides to continue the project, can continue to pull money to support it. But Rochester’s money comes from finite ARPA funding. If Rochester is happy with the results, they will have to find a new avenue to support the project.

Additionally, Bogle says that the program is not a silver bullet for poverty. Based on her experience, Bogle advocates the use of a guaranteed income program in tandem with other social services.  

“Will 1,000 a month solve peoples housing problems? Mmm, not necessarily,” she said. “But it will give people a breather so that they can be less food insecure, be less stressed out, spend some time getting training, solve some transportation issues.”