guaranteed income

One of Jesus’ parables that my congregation studied this fall was the Parable of The Laborers in the Vineyard, from Matthew 20. It’s a story Jesus told about a landowner hiring day laborers to work in his vineyard. He hires workers early in the morning, then again around 9am, again at noon and again at 3pm and even goes out one last time to hire workers at 5pm, who barely get an hour’s worth of work in before the sun sets and the day ends. At the close of business, the landowner calls up the workers who started late and gives them the full day’s wage he promised to those with an early morning start. Then he calls the rest of them up, in reverse chronological order, so that everyone watches as everybody gets the same payment, no matter how long or hard they worked in the vineyard. The early morning guys are grumbly: “didn’t we earn MORE than those lazy kids who just showed up an hour ago?!” And the landowner gives this line that will echo in your heart for all your days if you take this stuff seriously: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

In our class the day we studied this parable, my church people got to the real-life parable example I was going to introduce before I had a chance to mention it. “Hey! This is sort of like the guaranteed income pilot here in Durham!” And you know what? It really, really is.

Through a grant from Twitter (yes, before Elon brought his destructive brand of chaos and dissembling upon it) and former Mayor Steve Schewel’s partcipation in a group called “Mayors for A Guaranteed Income,” 109 formerly incarcerated neighbors in Durham are receiving $600, no-strings-attached payments each month this year. Durham is one of only two places in the country running a UBI program with formerly incarcerated people.

Folks were invited to apply for a lottery that determined who would be a participant, and the 109 people selected have been getting $600/month, with no strings attached, for 12 months, now. The data is incredibly encouraging: even though recidivism rates stubbornly hang around 40% – 4 out of 10 formerly incarcerated people will be imprisoned again within 3 years – none of the Excel program participants have been re-incarcerated. Recipients spent the money on food, hygiene products, clothes, gas, rent and medical expenses – exactly what you and I might spend an extra $600/month on.

Here’s a report from the local news about how successful the program is:

If you haven’t heard of guaranteed income, otherwise known as universal basic income, here’s a great article from this fall in the Washington Post. The idea is very simple: regular, no-strings attached payments to people regardless of “merit” or “qualification.” It is an empirically tested and proven way to lift people out of poverty, improve well-being, keep kids cared for, and help people find jobs. The data is incontrovertible – it happens every time the program or something like it is piloted. In the US, pandemic measures made incredible difference: the Child Tax Credit temporarily lifted THREE MILLION CHILDREN out of poverty, but our government refused to continue the payments.

I don’t know what it is to live in poverty, but I understand the difference that a guaranteed few hundred dollars each month can make in a household budget, and I bet you do, too. $600 a month would cover my out-of-pocket health insurance and the cost of things the pitiful policy doesn’t cover. Several of my friends are currently doing difficult math around whether or not they can continue to afford childcare if the pause on student loan payments does, in fact, end next year. And these are the financial questions of solidly middle class families – those dollars have exponential impact on smaller incomes and larger families.

Like the Washington Post reports, empirical evidence that UBI solves all kinds of problems isn’t enough to inscribe it in our policy. Our hearts here in the US are really hardened against people getting what they haven’t “earned.” Three million children fell back into poverty, y’all, because of our hardened hearts. Three million. We ARE envious whenever anyone else chooses to be generous.

But right here, in my own city, there are programs at work that fill the spreadsheets with even more incontrovertible evidence and, at the same time, act to start softening our hard hearts. I wonder how we can continue that work – both in our own hearts and in our public policies. Maybe you are a landowner, or a rich man – the people Jesus tells a bunch of his stories about, because their resources are needed and their hearts tend to be hardened – and you can practice generosity in a new way. Maybe you are a hard worker, a workaholic, even, whose splintery, grumpy heart could stand to be sanded down. Maybe you are a day laborer delighted with this recent windfall. Maybe we can all learn to celebrate generosity together. The “maybe” – that’s where the hope lives.

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