Providence's guaranteed-income kicks off: Here's the demographics of those selected

PROVIDENCE — The city’s guaranteed income program saw more than 4,000 applicants for 110 spots, the city announced Wednesday, giving a preliminary look at the depth of need within the city.

Two weeks ago, low-income participants who were chosen at random began receiving $500 monthly payments. To qualify, those chosen needed to be making no more than 200% of the federal poverty level.

Announcing the first batch of data, the city revealed that the median monthly income for participants prior to receiving the program’s financial assistance was $913, or about $11,000 per year. Overall, 76% of participants are female and 61% have children younger than 18.

Previous reporting: Overhead for guaranteed income pilot will exceed total payments to low-income families

Granted the very low incomes of those involved, Elorza suggested it’s possible the payments could grow.

“That’s the hope and that’s the plan for this,” he said. “It’s really hard to innovate in city government because there are so many existing programs that already don’t receive enough funding and it’s hard to find resources to do new things, especially when it’s an idea or project that isn’t fully tried and tested.”

While an increase in income could cause some participants to lose benefits they had been receiving, Elorza said families “were given all of the information that they needed to make an informed choice as to whether it made sense for them to participate in this program.”

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza updates the media on Providence's guaranteed income program.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza updates the media on Providence's guaranteed income program.

“​​I can confidently say that because of the work, the partnership with [the Rhode Island Department of Human Services] and the organizations on the ground, not a single family is going to be worse off than they were before this, which is really what we set out to achieve,” the mayor added.

Alyssa Perry, a registered medical assistant with the state and a participant in the program, said the program has already helped her to rent a car when her vehicle broke down and she needed transportation.

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As a single mom and parent of two young children, Perry intends to use the funds to get through the holiday season, eventually planning to save for a down payment on a home so that she can move her family out of project housing.

“My children didn’t ask for this life,” she said. “They didn’t ask for these struggles, and we do the best we can.”

Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, one of the program’s several partners, emphasized the “needs that have been exacerbated, that have grown, that have multiplied because of COVID,” noting the state’s ongoing housing crisis and continuing inflation that jacked up Thanksgiving dinner prices.

“It’s wonderful to get infrastructure money to build roads and bridges,” Steinberg said. “If you can’t afford the gas to drive the car, that doesn’t do you any good.”

The Center for Guaranteed Income Research, established by the University of Pennsylvania, will track how the $500 payments are used.

However, city spokesman Andrew Grande said the center "will track spending categories only, not individual purchases, of participants who make purchases using the distributed debit cards or spending app." Personally identifying information will be removed from that data.

The center will collect additional data through surveys and interviews.

Multiple guaranteed income programs have been proposed and launched around the country, primarily in coastal states, including several California cities. Elorza is one of 61 mayors advocating for such programs as part of his involvement in Mayors for a Guaranteed Income.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Providence's guaranteed-income program kicks off. Who was selected?