Illinois' Cook County launches program touted as one of the largest guaranteed income pilots in nation

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CHICAGO — Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has announced a $42 million guaranteed income pilot for suburban county residents, which she said will be one plank of an ambitious multiyear plan to tackle racial and economic inequities using federal COVID-19 stimulus funds.

Preckwinkle has offered few details about the cash assistance program, but its total would surpass a similar $31.5 million pilot in Chicago as well as most guaranteed income experiments across the U.S. Preckwinkle has said selected residents will get monthly payments for at least a year with no strings attached.

In pitching the program during a City Club of Chicago speech last week, the board president — who filed nominating petitions Monday to run for reelection this year — evoked the late writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin: “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” She railed against how “racist stereotypes” have allowed the idea of free cash payments to only recently gain steam as means to lift people out of poverty.

“This cynical mindset gets us nowhere and raises the question: How will the government ever regain public trust if we won’t trust our residents in return?” Preckwinkle said. “I find it quite sensible to give people what they need most when they’re living in poverty: money.”

Preckwinkle has also said the program will continue after its first run — though it remains unclear where the money will come from once the coronavirus stimulus funding is spent.

It’s also touted as one of the few guaranteed income programs that operates solely in the suburbs.

In the past two decades, many suburban communities nationwide have grappled with a rise in poverty while lacking a network of social service providers such as nonprofits. The suburban Chicago area is no exception, with the number of residents living below the poverty line jumping 54% from 2010 to 2016, according to the Metropolitan Planning Council.

Cook County’s upcoming pilot, which will debut in the next year, follows a $9 million county program launched in 2020 that doled out CARES Act money to suburban residents, allowing almost 14,000 households to receive a one-time $600 payment.

President Joe Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan Act allocated $1 billion to Cook County, about $700 million of which Preckwinkle said will be dedicated to community initiatives over the next several years while the rest will go toward government operations. After the guaranteed income pilot concludes, the county will need to find funding sources to make the program permanent.

Also in Wednesday’s speech, Preckwinkle touted upcoming uses of federal funds to pilot a 911 alternative response model that would send non-law enforcement responders to mental health crises.

She also announced a plan to abolish medical debt for county residents by partnering with a to-be-named organization to purchase up to $1 billion in outstanding balances for only $12 million.

Preckwinkle said Cook County will be the first local government in the nation to launch such a program. Eligible patients must have gotten medical care at a hospital located within Cook County and either earn no more than 200% of the federal poverty line or have medical debt totaling at least 5% of their annual household income.

“Medical debt — much like economic insecurity, housing instability, and those other factors I mentioned before — predominantly affects people of color, working families, and hourly workers,” Preckwinkle said. “This program will have an enormous impact on racial equity in Cook County.”