Arlyssa Heard struggles with crushing debt from student loans and a high-interest car payment. The single mom was excited to get a promotion at her job, but did not want a huge raise.
“The extra $150 extra take-home in my paycheck meant losing benefits worth far more,” she said.
Detroit residents like Heard hear over and over again they’re to blame for their financial situations and the state of their neighborhoods. They’re told they can pull themselves up by the bootstraps if only they try hard enough. Yet the system that’s supposed to help Arlyssa keeps her from getting ahead.
Our current economic system is not working to improve the lives of people in this city. Every day, Detroiters are struggling to make ends meet while enduring exploitative, poverty-wage jobs and punitive, deficit-based social support programs. For decades now, Detroit has been ranked among the cities with the highest rates of poverty. As a native Detroiter, this sobering reality hits home. Detroiters deserve better…Detroiters demand better!
Guaranteed income is a powerful tool.
More than 100 community groups and faith leaders, residents and businesses have signed a letter to elected officials demanding that Detroit join the growing number of municipalities with a guaranteed income pilot. The goal is to push for a federally-funded guaranteed income by demonstrating the benefits. By setting aside at least $1.5 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars – to be matched by a philanthropic partner – we can invest in our Detroit neighbors immediately and lay the groundwork for much-needed changes to our social support systems.
Here’s how it works: Participants get recurring cash payments that they can use however they want, without any restrictions or preconditions. (Guaranteed income is different from Universal Basic Income, which distributes cash transfers to an entire population. Rather, guaranteed income distributes cash to a specific group of individuals who experience systemic challenges inadequately addressed by current programs.)
Direct cash is a proven tool that works. Data from multiple guaranteed income pilots across the country—as well as the expanded monthly Child Tax Credit in 2021—have shown that direct cash payments are one of the most efficient and effective ways to lift people out of poverty. Participants experience drastic improvements to job prospects, food and housing security, financial stability, and their overall well-being and mental health.
We have to let go of harmful stereotypes that people experience poverty due to their own failings. We need to embrace a policy shift that recognizes that Detroit residents are experts in their own lives. People need investment in their goals and full control over their choices. They deserve the dignity to choose their pathways to economic mobility.
“We’ve made plenty of gains and we keep on climbing, but we aren’t at the level where we should be,” said Heard, who signed the letter calling for a guaranteed income. “We need this because when we benefit, everyone else benefits.”
What we’ve been doing to reduce poverty in this city isn’t working. Poverty is a policy choice, and as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure, the guaranteed income.” In this upcoming budget cycle, Detroit has an opportunity to take a step in this direction by making an investment in its greatest asset, the people.
Kofi Kenyatta is the Senior Policy and Practice Director at UpTogether.