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Guaranteed Income: Helping the Housing Insecure and Homeless

Christopher Larrison

Associate Professor

chlid eating banana in grocery cart

A Social Work professor has created and is running a program to aid families with school-age children who are housing insecure or homeless.

The program that gives people a temporary lift started, fittingly enough, on a chairlift.

“My brother and a friend of his and I were skiing in Tahoe,” says Christopher Larrison, associate professor in the School of Social Work. “I told them I was working with older adults who had been financially exploited. Well, the friend, Mark Donovan, says, ‘I’m very interested in basic income, that might take care of being financially exploited if you have regular income.’”

That planted the seed in Larrison’s mind. A successful pilot program in Stockton, California, had recently wrapped up; the universal basic income program gave randomly-selected residents $500 per month for two years with no strings attached. The results? It measurably improved participants’ job prospects, financial stability, and overall well-being.

Similar programs—over a hundred of them, Larrison says—have been popping up all over the country.

Why not in Champaign County?

Starting the Project

Back from his ski trip, Larrison went to work to get such a program going. First on his to-do list was to form a formidable and knowledgeable team.

“I met with Brent Roberts and Elsa Augustine from the Center for Social & Behavioral Science,” he says. “They both enthusiastically backed the idea.” From there, Larrison drew in Associate Professor Will Schneider from the School because of Schneider’s interest in income solutions in the child welfare system. This team then applied for Call to Action funding from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. “Finally, we hired Chelsea Birchmier, a doctoral student from the Department of Psychology, who has been instrumental in implementing the program,” Larrison says. “The contributions of two undergraduate students, Illakkia Ranjani and Fawwaz Ahmed, have been both meaningful and important. And Amy Hiles and Keith Blandford from the School’s business office have enrolled all of our participants in Banner and work diligently to ensure they receive their monthly payments.”

In March 2023, funded fully by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign money, nine people with school-age children received their first of seven $750 monthly checks in the Champaign County Guaranteed Income Project.

The project is one of 25 “Call to Action” proposals approved in 2022 by Chancellor Robert Jones in a $2 million annual commitment to address systemic racial inequities through research. The nine recipients all fall under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act’s definition of homelessness: people who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.

“These are all working families receiving the funds,” Larrison says. “They all have other income, which tells you they’re not making enough money to support their families.”

Larrison’s community partner in the project is the Champaign-Ford Regional Office of Education #9. “Kim Nix [connections program coordinator] and Donna Kaufman [assistant superintendent] have been instrumental in getting the families involved,” he says.

Completely Funded through the University

Many of the guaranteed basic income projects have been dependent on ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds, created by a federal stimulus bill to aid public health and economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. By the time Larrison got this project rolling, however, all of Urbana and Champaign’s the university’s ARPA funds were allocated. Being entirely funded through the university’s own money makes this project unique.

“We could find only two other projects across the nation that use university money,” Larrison says. “When I tell people that we’re using university money, they really like that idea. When we talk about branding at the university level, this has a very branding feel to it. It’s very positive.”

Need Funding to Sustain the Project

Foremost on Larrison’s mind these days is how to sustain—and grow—the project.

“I’ve talked with a lot of wealthy people, and they’re very curious about and interested in the project,” he says, “but it’s hard to convince them to give money to me to give away. Some of them looked at me like I have three heads.”

He relates the story of Donovan, who invested heavily in Tesla stock when it was selling for $80 a share. He made back his investment tenfold. Donovan proceeded to write a $500,000 check and then raised $9M for a guaranteed income program in Denver that involves nearly 900 families.

“When you can write a check like that, with no vested interest, that makes a big difference,” Larrison says.

Unfortunately, Larrison doesn’t have $500,000 burning a hole in his pocket.

“I would like to get the university more highly involved,” he says. “I spent $45,000 of their money, so if they tripled that, thirty families of McKinney-Vento could get money for six months over the course of a year. You know from a university standpoint the $150,000 is pretty small—and it clearly would buy lots of love around the community.

“I think permanency could be built through the university.”

Increased Need for Guaranteed Income Programs

Why should anyone—the university, foundations, corporations, individuals—want to invest in such a program?

“Well, first, it works,” Larrison says. “It’s been proven to work. And in a town like this, where housing is readily available and not overly costly, there has to be a set of solutions that start with people having enough income to participate in its housing in the most traditional way.

“And look at it this way: If any of the other things that we’ve tried had worked, we wouldn’t have the problem we’re having.”

Exacerbating the housing issue, he says, is the increasing presence of AI. “There were people, like Elon Musk, who thought that even before AI, we might not have enough jobs for people,” Larrison says. “Going ahead, even working people are going to struggle within an environment where healthcare is expensive, where food costs are being inflated, and where work is not likely to pay enough and may diminish greatly over time.”

The Programs Work

The need for guaranteed income programs is there, Larrison says. And yes, many people are leery about the idea of simply “handing out money” to people, fearing that the money will be misspent. With no strings attached, certainly some people will likely use the money in ways that don’t aid their ability to attain more permanent housing or higher-paying work. But Larrison points to research that shows that guaranteed income works: It pulls people out of poverty, improves health outcomes, makes it easier for people to find jobs (or better jobs) and take care of their children.

“What I’ve learned is our office can do it, the university money is good money, we have a great partnership with the Regional Office of Education, so we know there’s a consistent flow of clients, that there are more than 500 kids every year who are identified as part of a family that is housing insecure, we know that they could benefit from having access to better benefits, we know in general that people are not misspending money,” he says.

Larrison plans to survey the participants in the Champaign County Guaranteed Income Project at the end of the seven months of funding. “We’ll see how they used the money, how it helped them, and so on,” he says. “My hope is that five of the nine find housing stability, and among the four that don’t, that they were able to engage in activities that either improved the qualities of their kids’ lives or they were engaged in expending dollars that changed the dynamic of their ability to earn more dollars.”

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