Guaranteed income offers stability to formerly incarcerated people

This article was originally published by City Bureau, a nonprofit civic media organization based on the South Side.

For people who have been incarcerated, monthly cash assistance could be the support they need to rebuild their lives.

“When I got out, I had to go to a shelter,” said Corey Randall, 51, who has spent years incarcerated. “Nobody helped me do anything and I’m by myself so everything I got now, I had to work for it.” 

He has struggled to find full-time employment with benefits. So, he’s focused on the jobs that he could get—temporary service jobs and minimum wage employment without benefits. He now works at a corner store in West Garfield Park, where he prices and restocks items.

Randall is not alone. Formerly incarcerated people often face discrimination when they apply for jobs, which contributes to people reoffending and going back to prison, also known as recidivism. The discrimination is more acute for Black people with a criminal record. To help change that pattern, organizations across the country are offering cash—with no strings attached. 

In Chicago, Equity and Transformation, a west-side nonprofit founded by and for formerly incarcerated people, launched the Chicago Future Fund last year with a simple idea—to alleviate the hardships of life after prison or jail by giving individuals cash for them to spend how they see best, said Rachel Pyon, the Chicago Future Fund program manager.

Under the program, 30 formerly incarcerated people are receiving $500 per month for 18 months without any restrictions or work requirements. The participants—mostly men, all between the ages 18 and 35—say they have spent the money on everything from rent to bills to Christmas presents for their kids to child support, according to Pyon and Nik Theodore, a professor of the Department of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the director of the Center for Urban Economic Development, which is evaluating the program. 

Theodore said the majority of participants in the program face multiple barriers of unemployment, economic insecurity, and hardships. Participants earn less than $12,000 per year and while a few have part-time, temporary, or full-time jobs, “a lot of folks are still pretty much in and out of the labor market and relying on informal work and hustling to try to make ends meet,” he said.

Theodore expects that the cash assistance will help stabilize participants. That stability, he said, would allow them to seek housing that better fits their needs and jobs that better fit their skills—as opposed to whatever they can get in a crisis.

“I think a big piece of this is strengthening the autonomy of individuals to start to make decisions, not based on just sheer economic necessity, but from a slightly more comfortable position where better decisions can be made,” Theodore said.

The program is widely praised as Chicago’s first privately funded guaranteed income pilot program. To select participants, Equity and Transformation, which also goes by the acronym EAT, used a randomized process for people who met criteria. 

Popular support for guaranteed income has grown since the federal government gave Americans stimulus checks to stay afloat during the pandemic. Chicago and Cook County each started their own cash-assistance pilot programs earlier this year, which are now the largest in the U.S. While neither program excludes people based on their criminal history, nor tracks their individual charge or conviction, they are not specifically for formerly incarcerated people, which is where Equity and Transformation’s Chicago Future Fund comes in. 

The idea of giving unrestricted cash to formerly incarcerated people might give some people pause. Critics argue against such programs because they believe participants will use funds to engage in illicit activity, incentivizing them to remain unemployed.  

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However, Richard Wallace, founder and executive director of Equity and Transformation, said his organization follows a prison abolitionist model that focuses on the individual. The organization neither tracks the criminal charges of its participants nor sets stipulations on how the money is spent, he said. That’s because Wallace believes giving cash to Black Chicagoans impacted by mass incarceration and the War on Drugs is an essential step toward rebuilding people’s sense of community and individual dignity. 

Wallace sees guaranteed income as a solution to the recidivism and economic inequality that many formerly incarcerated people face. Unconditional cash, he said, may not solve systemic racism or rectify centuries of anti-Black oppression, discrimination, and criminalization, but it can act as a lifeline that enables formerly incarcerated people to focus on their well-being, families, and careers without worrying about unexpected expenses.

According to a 2021 press release, the first round of the Chicago Future Fund was supported by several organizations, including BLM Global Network Foundation, The Movement for Black Lives, and Black Freedom Collective. That same year, the organization reported to the federal government it received $1.6 million in gifts, grants, and contributions in its fiscal year 2020, which ended in July of 2021. 

“There are more than 100 pilots in the nation, and some of them are funded by private dollars,” said Harish Patel, director of Economic Security for Illinois and a manager of the Chicago Resilient Families Initiative Task Force, which studied the scope of the city’s guaranteed income pilot. The Chicago Future Fund “is prioritizing a certain group of people who need cash the most, and I’m hoping that there are a lot more privately funded organizations that prioritize certain groups of people who may get left behind by a massive city pilot.”

If successful, the Chicago Future Fund could provide advocates the argument they need to ensure people with criminal records have a financial safety net after being released.

Equity and Transformation plans to expand the program in the fall to service 100 additional people. The first round focused on participants from West Garfield Park. This round, the nonprofit will also focus on people who live in Austin and Englewood. The expansion is being funded by FTX, a Chicago-based cryptocurrency exchange, which promised to provide recipients with a zero-fee cryptocurrency bank account and financial literacy education—an innovation that Mayor Lightfoot lauded.

“Through this new FTX pilot, we will be able to ensure that residents from underrepresented backgrounds can access cash assistance, an innovative financial service, and financial education in one place,” Lightfoot said in a May press release announcing the expansion. “I thank FTX for partnering with EAT on this important initiative, which will ultimately make our post-pandemic recovery that much more equitable and inclusive.”

Randall, who works at the corner store in West Garfield Park, said such a program would have been life-changing when he’d been released from incarceration. He’s served nonconsecutive sentences on drug-related offenses. But he still could use the help. Randall, who plans to apply for the program when applications open in the fall, said he would use the money on “needs for my house.”

“I don’t have much, but I try to help a lot of people and try to save because it’s hard out here,” he said.

Since 1979, an estimated 3.3 million adults in Illinois have been arrested or convicted of a crime and may be living with the stigma and limitations of a criminal record, according to Never Fully Free, a Heartland Alliance report published in 2020. The report found more than 1,000 “permanent punishment laws” in Illinois that restrict the rights of people with records. The majority of those laws prevent or hinder access to employment by, for example, requiring background checks. Research shows applicants with criminal records are about half as likely as those without records to hear back from employers. 

“We’ve seen so many people in our program actually applying for many jobs but not seeing any results,” said Pyon.

Stable employment can reduce recidivism. But because people with records have difficulty finding employment, they often end up in temporary, low-paying jobs. Pyon said unrestricted cash can help people who have been incarcerated attain some financial stability to turn around their lives and avoid reoffending.

Forty-three percent of people released from prison in Illinois recidivate within three years of their release, according to a 2018 report by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, a nonpartisan sentencing advisory group created by the state’s General Assembly in 2009. Recidivism is costly: Illinois taxpayers pay around $151,000 when someone reoffends and goes back to prison. In 2018, the council estimated recidivism would cost Illinois some $13 billion over five years.

Marlon Chamberlain, project manager of Fully Free, a Heartland Alliance campaign that pushes to eliminate permanent punishments in Illinois, said guaranteed income programs also alleviate the psychological burden of having to go from being incarcerated to being self-sufficient and supporting a family. 

“When most people come home from prison, they don’t have anything. They’re pretty much starting over,” he said, adding that individuals often need basic essential items such as hygiene products, bus fare, and clothing. 

Chamberlain said that knowing that there is a financial cushion gives people returning home from prison a sense of stability, more room to explore their passions and pursue work that they value.

“I think it gives you the opportunity to breathe and think about what you want to do [after incarceration] without the worry of ‘I need to take care of myself now,’” Chamberlain said. 

Leslie Hurtado and Brian Young Jr. are 2022 City Bureau Summer Civic Reporting Fellows. Sarah Conway, City Bureau’s senior reporter covering jobs and the economy of survival in Chicago, contributed to this report. You can reach her with tips at [email protected]


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