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Six months in, Alexandria’s guaranteed income pilot is helping locals with the necessities

Six months in, participants in a new guaranteed income pilot aren’t diving into pools of money; it’s just helping them tread water a little easier.

While there aren’t restrictions on what the money can be used for, Economic Mobility Program Officer Julie Mullen said most of the money distributed in the city’s ARISE Guaranteed Income Pilot is helping those in need with basic necessities.

“Anecdotally, what we’re hearing is that $500 a month really lightens their load,” Mullen said. “We’ve gotten comments like ‘I can go to the grocery store without stressing’ and ‘I can pay the rent without stressing.'”

A single father with three children in the program was able to quit his second job, Mullen said, and spent more time at home with his children without being as worried about making ends’ meet.

“The general sense is that the mental load is lighter,” Mullen said. “Especially for single parents, we know that group, especially in Alexandria, is under a lot of strain.”

Beyond the anecdotal evidence, Mullen said a consultant is researching how $500 per month impacts economic stability, market participation, and physical and mental health. For households with children, Mullen said they’re studying how it’s impacting the kids.

“The cost of living is astronomical,” Mullen said. “These are not problems easily solved by getting a better job… we’re really dealing with a bigger systemic problem.”

By and large, Mullen said most of the spending has gone toward basics.

“The biggest spending category is grocery stores,” Mullen said. “I think that suggests people are spending the money to get through the month and pay for basic needs. I think that underscores the need for something like guaranteed income.”

Mullen said that research should be available once the program hits its one-year anniversary in February.

One of the lessons, Mullen said, was the tricky process of navigating how the pilot intersected with other programs like Medicaid and housing vouchers.

“I think when we were launching, the big question was how are people’s current benefits going to be impacted, things like SNAP and Medicaid and housing vouchers,” Mullen said. “We were spending a lot of time and energy to get benefit waivers to make sure people weren’t losing benefits they were getting.”

It was easier for the program to get some waivers than others.

“We were able to secure quite a few benefit waivers, like SNAP,” Mullen said. “Housing vouchers and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) were the big ones — there’s currently no waivers given from those.”

Mullen said her office did benefits counseling with participants before they joined so they could understand how their existing benefits might be impacted. Some decided not to participate because they didn’t want to compromise their SSI enrollment.

Similarly, some potential participants with housing vouchers decided not to participate, but those in low-income housing did participate because the program was still a net financial gain.

“On the whole, how the current benefits would be impacted is a big conversation point,” Mullen said.

Mullen said she’s been in close contact with Fairfax as Alexandria’s neighbor prepares to launch a similar program.

While the pilot is only halfway through its first year, Mullen said she’s been encouraged by the results so far.

“The excitement is that it’s lightening people’s mental load,” Mullen said, “which is what we wanted.”

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