“I'm now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In June 2020, a coalition of mayors founded Mayors for a Guaranteed Income (MGI) to advocate for direct, recurring cash payments to everyday Americans. The concept of guaranteed income is as old as the country, and it has renewed interest as cities like ours are looking for answers in the wake of COVID-19. For many it’s a new and sudden left turn into economic insecurity, but Paterson, we’ve known the struggle for a long time.
Founded by Alexander Hamilton, Paterson was the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. The city ultimately became the country’s largest manufacturer of silk. Sadly, after a major silk strike in 1913 and subsequent suburbanization in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, Paterson’s economy was left in tatters.
With the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas and the disinvestment from people who fled the city, Paterson has not been able to grow the local economy. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated and exposed our dire situation even further. Prior to the pandemic, the median income in Paterson was just $31,000. Because of the pandemic, our unemployment rate has risen from over 10 percent to 30 percent and countless restaurants and retail entities will never recover.
This financial distress has forced families to make difficult decisions. Paying rent has become more problematic and buying food has become more burdensome. As the income gap continues to widen, the need for a sustainable solution becomes increasingly imperative. Patersonians need relief.
We are not alone in Paterson. Cities across the country are struggling in the same way because economic insecurity isn’t a new challenge. Wealth and income inequality, which have long plagued our country, continue to grow. Even prior to the pandemic, people who were working two and three jobs still couldn’t afford basic necessities. COVID-19 has only further exposed the economic fragility of most American households, and has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown people.
Guaranteed income isn’t partisan and has received support from both sides of the ideological spectrum. During the Nixon Administration, there was a bi-partisan effort to address income inequality by providing payments to close the wealth gap. Ultimately, the Earned Income Tax Credit emerged as a result of this endeavor. Conservative American Economist, Milton Friedman espouses the aforementioned idea and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently indicated that now is the right time for a guaranteed income.
Research links guaranteed income to numerous benefits: lower poverty, debt, crime; better nutrition and health care access; fewer underweight babies; boosted school attendance and test scores; higher earnings and savings; a stronger local economy; less domestic violence; and improved mental health.
As our residents continue to struggle, we must meet our moment in Paterson. A guaranteed income will help individuals who are in between jobs and are looking to go back to school. It can also assist families purchase school supplies, especially Chromebooks in this era of virtual learning. Moreover, a guaranteed income will supplement, rather than replace, the existing social safety net. Folks will not lose benefits by participating in the pilot. Rather, the cash will afford them the dignity to make necessary choices for their families as they arise.
This is our New Deal moment: everyone deserves an income floor through a guaranteed income. As we look towards building a pilot in Paterson, please know that this program will not be tax-payer funded. Other cities have leveraged philanthropic donations and we will do the same in Paterson. We may not be Silicon Valley, but the Silk City always finds a way.
Andre Sayegh is Mayor of Paterson, New Jersey's third largest city.