Florida Guaranteed Income Pilot Focuses on Formerly Incarcerated
Guaranteed income and universal basic income pilots have sprung up across the country in recent years and the economic difficulties brought on by the pandemic have only increased that momentum. In Gainesville, Fla., Just Income GNV is taking the novel approach of offering guaranteed income benefits exclusively to formerly incarcerated persons in the community—specifically those released from a felony conviction or starting felony parole within six months of the application deadline. Just Income GNV Director Kevin Scott spoke with Spotlight about the project and his hopes that it can provide evidence that unrestricted cash benefits can help ease the trauma many returning prisoners experience. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell me how this project got started
We are part of a nonprofit called Community Spring in Gainesville that hires people in the community who’ve been impacted by poverty to address the systems that they see as contributing to their own experience of poverty. I was a part of the first fellowship class here and by total coincidence, we had all been impacted by the justice system in some way. And what we saw lacking here, and what was cyclical, was lack of resources around the release from incarceration. So, we start started a re-entry support group, very peer to peer and grassroots. It was former prisoners supporting people as they came out, trying to give them a softer landing and providing practical resources, but also emotional as well, helping to process the trauma and helping people connect with jobs, housing, things like that. And we certified some local businesses as fair chance employers and worked on a ban the box ordinance (a law prohibiting employers from probing an applicant’s criminal history) with the city. It was successful, but then COVID happened, and we had to hit the brakes on pretty much all gathering, but we still wanted to do something to help our community. So, we did a one-time direct cash assistance program here, which was just $300, which didn’t seem like much, you know, in hindsight, but at a time when toilet paper was impossible to find, it was pretty important. And that was not for formerly incarcerated necessarily. That was just for anyone who was already receiving benefits in our county.
So, based on that work, when our mayor joined Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, he came to Community Spring and said, we would like a local nonprofit to implement a guaranteed income pilot. Would you be willing to do it? And after thoughtful discussion, we said, yes, however, only if it is for formally incarcerated people based on our lived experience and our previous work with re-entry. And so that’s how we kind of came to be doing this pilot period.
As to where we are now, we already have 57 people who started getting the money in January and it’s a $1,000 the first month and then $600 a month for the next 11 months after that. Our project is a little unusual in that it’s not 100% the same amount for all the payments, and that was frontloaded very purposefully. Everything that we do tries to reflect impacted people’s voices and after thoughtful discussion with former prisoners, we settled on the intervals and the cadence of payments.
We are now waiting to finalize the list of the next 58 people who have applied for round two. And that’s a randomized selection that happens with our research partner, the Center for Guaranteed Income Research at the University of Pennsylvania. When we get the next 58 names, we will go through the whole process of onboarding of those people and get them signed up for direct deposits. We want to be as seamless as possible and as easy as possible so that people don’t have to keep coming in to pick up a check and they can just live their lives. The second set will also be for a year, with the same cadence of payments.
I understand the program is randomized, but what are the general requirements for being considered?
To be eligible for either one of the cohorts you had to come out of state or federal prison or a Florida county jail with a felony or begin felony probation within six months of the application deadline. We try to keep everything as close to release as possible, just knowing that the needs are so urgent and to demonstrate in as tight of a window as is possible, here’s how it was for folks coming out freshly from incarceration with resources and here’s how it was for folks that did not have these resources. We didn’t have any criteria in terms of like certain crimes or the amount of time that you spent inside.
And how significant was the issue that many formerly incarcerated persons have with obtaining documentation or having access to the banking system?
You have to have something to verify your identity, and that was an issue for some folks. A driver’s license or state ID work the best but for some people, a verification of homelessness form was the best option. In both cohorts, over 10% self-identified as homeless. On disbursement, our partner is Steady, a platform that is connected to a lot of Mayors for Guaranteed Income pilots. In the best-case scenario, we can get participants signed up to that and linked to an existing bank account. In other cases, you may have someone who’s been in prison for decades and has never seen a smartphone. The answer for those folks is to give them a prepaid debit card. Steady handles all of that and will be able to provide financial research at the end of the year on how people spent the money they were provided with, in terms of broad categories.
Have there been other instances of focusing on this specific population with a guaranteed pilot?
There’s been a few smaller scale ones, such as in Durham, North Carolina, but we believe we’re the first to specifically focus on people who have been out for six months or less.
What other sort of data are you looking to report out?
We’re fortunate that we’re paired with UPenn and the Center for Guaranteed Income Research and we also have a primary investigator, Dr. Lucius Couloute, who’s a criminology and sociology professor from Suffolk University. What they’ll be doing over the course of the entire 18 months is gathering quantitative and qualitative data. He’s especially interested in the qualitative, the personal narrative stuff, but they’ll be monitoring spending, where the money goes, and also the relationship between income and recidivism. Housing stability is another big one. When I got out of prison, I actually slept in the parking lot of a local shelter. For a lot of people, the harsh awakening when they come home is you were in prison last night and you at least had a roof. But now you’re free in the world and you spend your first night in a parking lot or sleeping in the dirt near a homeless shelter because there’s no beds available. It’s brutal.
We want to look at the relationship between income and a person’s sense of identity, their sense of their place in the community. You’ve been traumatized, you’ve sort of been beaten down through this constant campaign against your humanity while you’re incarcerated. Does income mitigate that? Does this boost you in any way? Another big area we want to look at is probation fees and fines. Here, about 20 to 25 percent of probation violations can be linked back to simply not having enough money; you might have court fees, fees for an ankle monitor, mandatory classes, drug testing, or polygraphs. So, there’s an extraordinary amount of debt and diminished opportunities to even make money. You’re facing 30% unemployment and you actually have more debt than the average citizen at that point. For too many people being reincarcerated, it’s just due to a lack of money. There’s no crime, no new offense. The crime is your bank account. Basically, they’re saying you are too poor to be free and so we’re going send you back to the place that has compounded the difficulties in your life.
In terms of how this relates to the city, your project is privately funded, correct?
Yes. We felt like that was important at this point because this is proof of concept and it’s controversial. We didn’t pick single moms. We picked people who’ve been in prison, so there could be extra scrutiny and we thought it was important to keep taxpayer dollars out of it at this point.
And is the city doing anything else on guaranteed income or is this the pilot they’re sort of watching before they plan?
This is it. Our mayor, Lauren Poe, joined MGI. In June of 2020 I believe, and this is the first test of concept.
We spoke with Michael Tubbs just last week, who started this whole guaranteed income movement in Stockton, Calif., and it’s been fascinating to see the potential receptivity to the idea grow over the past few years. Do you see people in your community becoming more open to unrestricted cash benefits, particularly after the experience of the pandemic?
Even with just a couple of months payments for our first cohort, we’ve seen an immediate difference. One guy had had like several hip surgeries in prison that were botched, and because our benefit has no strings, he was able to get a scooter at a hospice thrift store. He can now get around his neighborhood, get on the bus with it. He can go to the store. It’s completely opened up his life.
Another guy said he was going to save his house, a home he shares with his disabled brother, the home they grew up in. They didn’t have enough money to make the payment, and this saved their family house. So, it’s just stunning stuff—people paying off legal fees and removing that fear of reincarceration and education, transportation, all kinds of things. It’s been amazing to watch the impact.