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Cook County Launches Guaranteed Income Pilot With Help from Tech

Cook County, Ill., is using a technology platform created collaboratively through a partnership with GiveDirectly and AidKit to distribute guaranteed incomes to more than 3,200 residents in need.

Screenshot of Cook County Promise Guaranteed Income Pilot website. Image display is the name of the program over a gradient sky.
Screenshot of Cook County Promise Guaranteed Income Pilot website.
This month, Cook County, Ill., announced the upcoming application window for its Promise Guaranteed Income Pilot. The initiative will use technology to support the process from the application itself to the distribution of funds.

The idea of a universal basic income has gained popularity in recent years, although some are uncertain about the impact this type of support might have.

For Cook County, ARPA dollars were seen as a way to support people 18 years or older living at or below the federal poverty level — an estimated 36 percent of Cook County residents. Funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has already been used for a variety of different services and solutions for residents, ranging from broadband connectivity to surveillance.

Through the pilot, the county will send monthly payments of $500 to 3,250 residents for two years, with payments expected to begin in December 2022. Eligible residents can apply during the window beginning on Oct. 6 and ending on Oct. 21. In total, the pilot is a $42 million investment.

Households that are already receiving funds through another guaranteed income program — for example, those participating in Chicago’s Resilient Communities Pilot — are not eligible to apply.

The platform is essentially a website through which users can apply for and receive these payments. Information can be viewed in 12 different languages and users can sign up for updates and additional information to be ready when the application window opens. In addition, the platform offers a section with frequently asked questions, as well as locations where applicants can receive in-person assistance with the process.

The idea to use these funds for this type of program was born out of the COVID-19 pandemic response efforts. According to Pete Subkoviak, director of guaranteed income and economic mobility for the county, the one-time cash assistance offering that the county distributed through the Coronavirus Relief Fund proved an effective way to target communities that were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, as well as those who have been historically left out of other investments.

“There’s a longstanding commitment to equity within Cook County government in the [County President Toni] Preckwinkle administration — particularly racial equity,” Subkoviak said. “And the program, for the same reasons that we experienced with the one-time cash assistance, is also very effective and efficient at addressing that issue as well.”

And because most of the people that the county is trying to serve with this pilot have smartphones, he said the county made the decision to create a platform that can be accessible from that type of device to connect with people where they are.

In addition, Sarah Moran, U.S. country director for GiveDirectly, explained that accessing government benefits often comes with a time tax, and through the digital form, the team could reduce friction for applicants and simplify the application process.

And while the process may be simple for those who are technology-enabled, there are also pathways to help serve those who do not have the digital skills required to apply. For example, working with community-based organizations or organizations with resources for individuals who do not speak English as a first language can help bridge the gap, said Ben Newhouse, co-founder and chief technology officer of AidKit.

“It’s technically on the Internet, but with the help of staff on the ground, we can kind of bring that technology to everyone who would benefit from this,” Newhouse said.

In addition, to reach those who may not necessarily have bank accounts or direct deposit, participants have the option to receive the payments in the form of a debit card.

Moran explained that because GiveDirectly has experience designing and implementing these types of large-scale cash programs, and AidKit was able to build a platform complimentary to this effort, the three entities were able to work together to create an effective platform. In addition, the county had an existing network of outreach partners within the community to help spread awareness on the ground.

“This is a Herculean effort in order to do something like this, that is sort of groundbreaking and innovative and big,” Subkoviak said. “And to do it right and do it well, there needs to be a lot of coordination, open communication and dedication on all sides.”

The data will allow the county to assess both the individual applicants’ experience with the process as well as the global set of applicants, Newhouse explained. This will help expand understanding around needs in relation to geographic location, demographics, obstacles in the application process and more.

Subkoviak added that the county is looking at ways to make this a long-term solution for its residents, something that Preckwinkle championed. Throughout this two-year pilot — and with the evaluations being done by the University of Chicago’s Inclusive Economy Lab and the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice — the county will gain a better understanding of the program up from a process and technology standpoint to building a permanent guaranteed income program.

“We really want to make the best program we can for Cook County and serve as a model to other local, state and federal governments for how 21st century support for residents should be done.”
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.