COVID-19 hit like a tsunami. In its path stood both human lives and economic futures. My residents didn’t just need answers about how to keep themselves and their loved ones healthy. They needed us to help them pay rent, fill empty refrigerators, and keep the heat running.
Like local governments do, Cook County rapidly responded. Our response was simple and quick: We sent cash payments of $600 directly to every eligible suburban Cook County resident earning less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line who applied — that amounts to $54,300 a year for a family of three. The Cook County COVID-19 Recovery Resident Cash Assistance Program was made possible because of flexible funding from the CARES Act.
But a sustained economic recovery will require more than one $600 check, or more than one $1,400 check. A sustained recovery demands sustained investment from Congress and President BidenJoe BidenCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Senate parliamentarian nixes Democrats' immigration plan Biden pushes back at Democrats on taxes MORE in monthly recurring checks.
Our cash assistance program worked because it gave people the agency to decide how to meet their urgent financial needs. People didn’t need another complicated program with limitations and eligibility requirements they had to research or that we had to market. Our residents needed immediate relief and the flexibility to spend their money to best meet their needs.
The program was such a success that we quadrupled the funding from $2 million to $8.3 million. With the money from the American Rescue Plan Act, we want to give even more.
Early evidence from our program demonstrates this success. Money went where it was needed most. The median income of our recipients was $20,000. And relief went to women and people of color most impacted by COVID-19: more than four out of five recipients were people of color, 70 percent were women, and 65 percent had children. Our data show that recipients spent their money on rent, utilities, food, and other necessities.
One resident in the south suburbs of Cook County lives with chronic illnesses and suffered a heart attack in the summer of 2019. Once doctors cleared her to return to work on a part-time basis, the pandemic struck. Suddenly unemployed, the bills continued to pile up. She turned to our cash assistance program for a financial lifeline. She used the funds to catch up on utility bills and keep her car running.
Stories like hers are heartbreaking and there are so many more people who need help.
We are not alone in seeing the success of cash programs. Evidence is pouring in across the country that direct cash policies work. The Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration recently released preliminary first-year results from their guaranteed income pilot that gave 125 residents $500 per month for 24 months. These results show guaranteed income reduced recipients’ income volatility, enabled them to find full-time employment, and improved their mental health and wellbeing.
The American Rescue Plan Act, the historic legislation that President Biden signed into law last week, also includes significant direct cash payments to individuals and families. The law includes another round of stimulus checks, which we know will provide a lifeline for many residents. Significantly, it also expands the child tax credit into a guaranteed income: for the first time in American history, families with children are now eligible to receive recurring monthly checks.
It is a wonderful feeling to have a partner in our federal government that understands the needs of our residents. We now have a unique opportunity to build on the national momentum to alleviate poverty by providing direct cash assistance. I look forward to working with the president to get more recurring checks to our residents on an ongoing basis until the economy recovers.
When I reflect upon how Cook County is responding to address the needs of residents during the pandemic and beyond, I am proud that I can say we gave our residents cash.
I plan to give them more.
I urge President Biden and Congress to do the same.
Toni Preckwinkle is president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.