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Newark Mayor On Guaranteed Income To Alleviate Income Inequality


Texas is not alone in surging coronavirus cases. Nearly 47,000 new cases were reported nationwide on Saturday. And as states including California, New Jersey and Pennsylvania tighten restrictions on businesses, that could add to the economic burden facing many families.

But a group of mayors is working to change that. Mayors for Guaranteed Income is a collection of city leaders across the country exploring a baseline income for all. In other words, everyone would receive guaranteed money regardless of how much they make or whether they work. The goal is to remedy income inequality.

One of the group's members, Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, N.J., commissioned a task force on what a pilot program might look like. Among its findings are that Newark's median income is less than $40,000 a year, but a family must make at least $63,000 a year to meet basic needs. We called Mayor Baraka to learn more about this report and how Mayors for Guaranteed Income is planning to help.

Mayor Baraka, welcome to the program.

RAS BARAKA: Thank you for having me.

PFEIFFER: You know that many people were introduced to the concept of universal basic income from former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, even though it's something that Martin Luther King Jr. advocated decades ago. Yang's idea was called a freedom dividend, which would pay each American adult a thousand dollars a month. Why do you think this general idea is getting renewed interest now?

BARAKA: Well, obviously because of - this COVID-19 pandemic has made it more palatable in the eyes of many Americans. Particularly, you know, folks and elected officials in elected office, they begin to see that, you know, the government can, in fact, help people who are having times of distress and in times of need. And so they've began giving out this kind of - these dollars as well to select groups of people. But I think that people have been thinking about this for some time.

PFEIFFER: Mayor, you used the expression more palatable. It's become more palatable to people. I think many people...

BARAKA: Right.

PFEIFFER: ...Have real difficulty accepting that anyone should just be given money without any work requirement attached. How do you persuade those skeptics?

BARAKA: There are people who believe that, right? (Laughter) And that is because of, you know, our history here in this country. And we believe that folks are going to do something for free, and they're not going to do any work. But the evidence doesn't bear that out. The amount of money that you get from a guaranteed income is not enough for you to not work. It's not enough for you to quit your job. Such is the same for government programs that exist. It's just really not enough for you to live off of.

But it is - it does help you take care of kind of basic needs that you may have that you may - that you will not fall into disrepair, that your family won't be crushed by a mere $400 emergency. It is important to make sure that people have enough money to purchase food, that they could pay their rent, that they have the opportunity to spend more time with their children, that they can invest in their education. They could do different things. And I think that this is an opportunity to get that to happen. And it goes right back into the economy.

PFEIFFER: Where would the money come from to fund this?

BARAKA: We're working with a few organizations that have been doing this around the country. We are working with those organizations and locally to raise the kind of money that we need to do a pilot project here in the city of Newark. And then after that, you know, it's really convincing policymakers on the state and federal government levels to do something like this or to do this exactly.

PFEIFFER: So would this initially be private money and then become government money?

BARAKA: Right.

PFEIFFER: How much money are you proposing that people get?

BARAKA: Well, right now, we are - in Newark, our pilot offers people about $500 a month. And anywhere between 500, 1,000, 1,200 - whatever - we believe that is showing some kind of progress for these families. I think it's something that we advocate for, and that's the purpose of doing studies - to see how this works, how much money would be necessary to help stabilize a family, what we, in fact, would have to do here locally to make a national or statewide push.

And we're not the only one. So there are many other states that are joining us that are a part of this larger national study that I think is going to be helpful in formulating policy as we move forward.

PFEIFFER: You're doing this at the local level. Do you sense that it's getting any traction at a federal level?

BARAKA: Sure. I think that there are many, many discussions and bills that are being proposed even now around the stimulus funds to make it happen. Every month, people are talking about that now. I mean, there's a bill in the Senate, bill in the House that talks about trying to make the stimulus money continue until the COVID-19 crisis is over altogether. I think that that is a precursor for what we want to do in a larger sense.

And if you look at the mayors that are joining on - Stockton, Jackson, St. Paul, Compton, Oakland, Tacoma, Columbia, Atlanta - you know, there are more mayors all across the country that are now pushing the same idea. And I think it's just a matter of time before it becomes on the radar permanently of kind of national advocates and elected officials.

PFEIFFER: That's Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, N.J.

Mayor Baraka, thank you.

BARAKA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF J-WALK'S "SOUL VIBRATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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