I'm the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island. Our city is starting a guaranteed income program to fight back against poverty - and the rest of the US should take notice.

·4 min read
Homes are shown boarded up in Providence, Rhode Island. Someone in a red hoodie rides a bike past the houses.
Homes are shown boarded up on April 08, 2021 in Providence, Rhode Island. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
  • Instead of eliminating poverty, the "War on Poverty" has become a war on the poor.

  • We need to listen to what poor people say they need - they are the ones fighting poverty, not the politicians.

  • Guaranteed income programs are the bold intervention we need to increase economic mobility.

  • Jorge O. Elorza is the Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island.

  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

In January of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the beginning of our country's "War on Poverty" by saying, in part: "Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it."

President Johnson's war on poverty was ambitious, radical, and intensely optimistic about what we, as a nation, could achieve. It imagined that every American would be offered the stability and opportunities we all need to thrive.

Yet, in the intervening decades, the War on Poverty has instead become a war on the poor. Instead of providing low-income members of our community with the opportunity and stability that Johnson imagined, our society has largely mistaken our neighbors in need of help for the enemy itself.

If we are to advance in the War on Poverty, we must first have a clear-eyed understanding of what it is: Poverty and economic instability are the results of systemic underinvestment in marginalized communities, not individual failures. They are systemic failures, and they require bold interventions, not bootstraps or band-aids.

We must also be clear about who the front-line fighters in this war are: not politicians or policymakers, but the people living in poverty. As the front-line soldiers in this war, these individuals, families, and communities are the experts on the enemy, and what it will take to defeat it. We should listen carefully to the expertise they bring to the table, and make sure to provide the resources they tell us they need.

This is why I announced the launch of a Providence Guaranteed Income pilot program that will provide $500 a month to 110 Providence households living in poverty for one year. The pilot, which is entirely philanthropically funded, will be rigorously evaluated by researchers at the Center for Guaranteed Income Research at the University of Pennsylvania to help us understand the impact this assistance has on recipients and their communities.

The power of guaranteed income

Guaranteed income pilots in places like Stockton, California have already demonstrated the power of guaranteed income as an anti-poverty tool. Not only did the study in Stockton find - predictably - that recipients of guaranteed income experienced significantly fewer fluctuations in their month-to-month income and greater ability to handle a financial emergency, but the study also helps us to zoom out and see how poverty becomes one of the biggest barriers to economic mobility.

After one year, recipients of guaranteed income saw significant improvements to their physical health and improvement to their mental health that is comparable to the clinical impact of antidepressants. That means recipients had more capacity to work, pursue job development opportunities, and help their children with their education - all crucial activities for both intra- and intergenerational economic mobility.

Moreover, over the course of the first year of the study, the number of recipients employed full-time grew 12%, compared to only 5% in a control group. With $500 per month, people were able to secure more reliable transportation to get to work, enroll their children in more consistent childcare, and take time off from their jobs to seek out better opportunities.

Far from leading people to work less, guaranteed income gave people the tools they needed to get over the barriers to stable, full-time income that kept them trapped in poverty. Once recipients were able to stabilize their finances, they could begin building the futures they wanted for themselves, their families, and their communities. I firmly believe low-income residents of Providence deserve this same opportunity.

60 years ago, President Johnson told the nation that the cause of poverty lay "in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities." Since then, our wealth has continued to grow, but too many members of our community are kept from developing their own capacities by poverty's own barriers. Guaranteed income offers us a way to deliver on President Johnson's promises - a way to not just relieve the symptoms of poverty, but cure and prevent it. Not surprisingly, that way starts by trusting and empowering the people who are already fighting the war on poverty every day.

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