Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Many of us have seen pilots and even full municipal programs around the concept of universal basic income, also known as guaranteed income. The concept is not new. 

Championed by Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton, California, in recent years universal basic income has gained traction across the country. Here in South Carolina, Columbia recently announced a pilot program aimed to stimulate the household incomes of fathers in the city in partnership with the Midlands Fatherhood Coalition. The question I have is: Will Charleston explore this? 

The answer may come down to sheer political will and the support of those who likely don’t understand the concept and disregard it as “universal welfare.”

Middleton

As we continue to see disparity in plain view and better understand the systemic needs and challenges faced by the working poor and our seniors, we have the opportunity to take bold action and make progress in decreasing poverty levels in the Holy City.

Local governments can leverage public dollars and private resources to decrease poverty, provide upward mobility and truly have more unity in the community we all claim to love and embrace. Federal pandemic relief through the American Rescue Plan has empowered cities like Alexandria, Virginia; St. Louis, Missouri, and others to implement versions of universal basic income programs that target $500 a month to specific households. This, in addition to the expanded child tax credit, immediately transforms most vulnerable families and communities. 

My mother, a single parent of one who worked not one but three jobs to support us, was doing her best to make ends meet throughout my childhood. Put simply, a guaranteed income of $500 a month would have meant she could have quit one of her three jobs. As I think about what that extra money and time on my mother’s hands could have meant for me as her child, I consider it even more important for what such time and stability means today.

Leveraging federal dollars with private funding can provide a viable pathway for piloting a guaranteed income program in Charleston — right now. Whether for hospitality workers, single parents, those living below the poverty line, those experiencing homelessness, senior citizens or even specific neighborhoods. 

An additional $500 each month can cover a student loan payment. It can cover the cost of needed car repairs, provide childcare or make rent. It can make food security in a household a guarantee rather than questionable. Five hundred dollars a month is a tutor, youth recreation activities, school supplies, clothes, medicine, fresh food and vegetables and so much more. Since funds don’t have to be spent right away, an extra $500 can go toward a down payment, an emergency fund or savings if one work is seasonal.

Perhaps most notably, and not to be taken for granted, guaranteed income is proven to lower anxiety and depression and improve overall quality of life and wellness. Furthermore, guaranteed income does not encourage people not to work. In fact, participants have increased their full-time employment due to the stability provided to seek better employment. 

A guaranteed income doesn’t ensure better life outcomes or better family dynamics. But it does offer a tangible, immediate solution to a household’s financial insecurity. It’s a steadier set of legs for someone between jobs or a grandparent raising their grandchild on a fixed income. Guaranteed income can be the bridge people need right now. At the local level, this can directly transform how we address persistent poverty in our community, close the income gap and lessen the burden on an already-stressed social service network. 

It’s easy for us to brush off guaranteed income as a moonshot concept with no feasibility. But if other cities, elected leaders and even private corporations are making this investment in their backyard. Why not Charleston? The question is not can it be done, but rather do we have the will to take this on?

With the right leadership, the answer is always yes.

Clay N. Middleton, of Charleston, has held various senior-level positions in government and politics.