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Pilot Program In Virginia City Will Give $500 A Month To Low-Income Families

NOEL KING, HOST:

Alexandria, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., is about to take a simple but still fairly radical approach to fighting poverty. The city's going to give cash directly to low-income families every month, no strings attached, for two years. Alexandria's mayor is Justin Wilson, and we talked recently.

JUSTIN WILSON: We will select 150 families, and we will provide them with $500 per month for two years. And we're going to provide that on a debit card that they can use for anything that they want.

KING: How are you going to choose 150 families? Are you asking people to apply? Are you identifying them based on some data the city has about who needs what?

WILSON: We're still working out the details right now, but our expectation is we're going to choose folks who are in the 30% to 40% of area median income, so basically slightly above the federal poverty level. You know, part of the thought here is there is a lot of federal and state human service assistance already in place for those folks who are living below the federal poverty level. What we're trying to do is try to help those folks who are just outside of qualification for a lot of that assistance. This is an effort to try to address those populations the pandemic revealed were incredibly vulnerable to what happened in this pandemic.

KING: What sorts of things are people having trouble with? Is it rent? Is it food? What's the thing that you hear most often?

WILSON: Well, I think I'm looking at the experience we've had over the last year and a half. Mayors and chairs of boards of supervisors all around the country get what's called a WARN notice. Whenever there's going to be a mass layoff, it's a federally required notice that an employer has to provide when they're going to lay off a lot of employees. And at the beginning of the pandemic, I got WARN notices every single week. And it was from hotels, from large restaurants, just economic carnage. And these are the folks who were accessing our food assistance. You know, we were providing in one month what we used to provide an entire year as far as volume of food assistance.

The increase, as well as just the vulnerability of those populations, was a shock for us. And I think coming out of the pandemic, you know, trying to expend these federal dollars that give us an opportunity to try to create greater resiliency so that in the future a shock like this doesn't leave them that vulnerable.

KING: Guaranteed income programs are becoming more popular in the United States. More cities are trying them out. You're still going to face some amount of pushback, I imagine, by people who say these tax dollars were earmarked for coronavirus relief. This is a - an unproven social experiment, however worthy. Is this money really being spent in the right way?

WILSON: Well, first of all, I think this money is definitely being spent in the right way. Part of the concept around the rescue plan was to provide a stimulation to our economy. Every study shows that if you provide lower-income individuals with money, they will immediately spend it to stimulate the economy, much more so than if you provide that money to upper-middle-class and wealthy individuals.

But beyond that, you know, trying to make sure that we learn the lessons of this pandemic, which is we have an entire portion of our community that was so vulnerable to a shock, and we have an opportunity to help those families in the future not be that vulnerable. This is one of those ways.

KING: Justin Wilson, the mayor of Alexandria, Va., thanks so much for being with us. We appreciate it.

WILSON: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINITUS TEMPO'S "A STROLE THROUGH SAIGON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.