This article was originally published by City Bureau, a nonprofit social media organization based in the South Side.
For people who have been in prison, monthly cash assistance can be the support they need to rebuild their lives.
“When I got out, I had to go to a shelter,” said Corey Randall, 51, who spent years in prison. “Nobody helped me do anything and I’m alone, so whatever I got now I had to work for it.”
He struggles to find a full-time job with benefits. So he focuses on the jobs he could get: temporary service jobs and minimum wage with no benefits. He now works at a corner store in West Garfield Park, pricing and restocking items.
Randall is not alone. Former inmates are often discriminated against when applying for a job, which leads to people reoffending and ending up back in prison, also known as recidivism. The discrimination is sharper for black people with a criminal record. To help change that pattern, organizations across the country are offering cash, no strings attached.
In Chicago, Equity and Transformation, a nonprofit on the west side founded by and for previously incarcerated people, launched the Chicago Future Fund last year with a simple idea: to alleviate the rigors of life after jail or prison by providing individuals with cash. give them money to spend how they see best, said Rachel Pyon, program manager for the Chicago Future Fund.
Under the program, 30 previously incarcerated people will receive $500 a month for 18 months without any restrictions or work requirements. According to Pyon and Nik Theodore, a professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the director of the Center for Urban Economic Development, which is evaluating the program.
Theodore said the majority of program participants face multiple barriers of unemployment, economic uncertainty and hardship. Participants earn less than $12,000 a year and while a few have part-time, temporary or full-time jobs, “many people are still pretty much in and out of the job market, relying on casual work and hustling to try and make ends meet,” he said. he.
Theodore expects the monetary assistance to help stabilize the participants. That stability, he said, would allow them to seek housing that better suits their needs and jobs that better suit their skills — unlike anything they can get in a crisis.
“I think a big part of this is strengthening individuals’ autonomy to make decisions, not just based on sheer economic necessity, but from a slightly more comfortable position where better decisions can be made,” Theodore said.
The program is widely hailed as Chicago’s first privately funded guaranteed income pilot program. To select participants, Equity and Transformation, also known as the acronym EAT, used a randomized process for people who met the criteria.
Popular support for guaranteed income has increased since the federal government gave Americans incentives to survive the pandemic. Chicago and Cook County each started their own pilot cash assistance programs earlier this year, which are now the largest in the US. locked up people, that’s where Equity and Transformation’s Chicago Future Fund comes in.
The idea of giving unlimited cash to previously incarcerated people might make some people hesitant. Critics argue against such programs because they believe that participants will use money to engage in illegal activities, thereby incentivizing them to remain unemployed.
However, Richard Wallace, founder and executive director of Equity and Transformation, said his organization follows a prison abolition model that focuses on the individual. The organization does not monitor the criminal charges of its participants, nor does it make any provisions on how the money is spent, he said. That’s because Wallace believes that giving cash to Chicago blacks affected by mass incarceration and the War on Drugs is an essential step toward restoring a sense of community and people’s individual dignity.
Wallace sees guaranteed income as a solution to the recidivism and economic inequality that many ex-convicts face. Unconditional money, he said, may not solve systemic racism or correct centuries of anti-black oppression, discrimination and criminalization, but it can act as a lifeline that allows previously incarcerated people to focus on their well-being, families and careers without having to pay. worry about unexpected expenses.
According to a 2021 press release, the first round of the Chicago Future Fund was supported by several organizations, including BLM Global Network Foundation, The Movement for Black Lives and Black Freedom Collective. That same year, the organization reported to the federal government that it received $1.6 million in gifts, grants and contributions in fiscal 2020, which ended in July 2021.
“There are more than 100 pilots in the country, and some of them are funded by private dollars,” said Harish Patel, director of economic security for Illinois and a manager of the Chicago Resilient Families Initiative Task Force, which has guaranteed the pilot’s scope. income of the city. The Chicago Future Fund “prioritizes a certain group of people who need money the most, and I hope there are many more privately funded organizations that prioritize certain groups of people who might be left behind by a massive city pilot.”
If successful, the Chicago Future Fund could provide advocates with the argument they need to ensure those with criminal records have a financial safety net after they’re released.
Equity and Transformation plans to expand the program to an additional 100 people in the fall. The first round focused on contestants from West Garfield Park. This round, the nonprofit will also target people living in Austin and Englewood. The expansion is being funded by FTX, a Chicago-based cryptocurrency exchange, which promised to provide recipients with a free cryptocurrency bank account and financial literacy — an innovation Mayor Lightfoot praised.
“Through this new FTX pilot, we can ensure that residents of underrepresented backgrounds have access to cash assistance, an innovative financial service and financial education in one place,” Lightfoot said in a May press release announcing the expansion. “I thank FTX for partnering with EAT on this important initiative, which will ultimately make our recovery from the pandemic much more equitable and inclusive.”
Randall, who works at the corner store in West Garfield Park, said such a program would have been life-changing had he been released from prison. He has served non-consecutive sentences for drug-related offences. But he could still use some help. Randall, who plans to enroll in the program when applications open in the fall, said he would use the money for “needs for my home.”
“I don’t have much, but I try to help and save a lot of people because it’s hard here,” he said.
Since 1979, an estimated 3.3 million adults in Illinois have been arrested or convicted of a felony and may be living with the stigma and limitations of a criminal record, according to Never Fully Free, a Heartland Alliance report published in 2020. than 1,000 “permanent criminal laws” in Illinois that restrict the rights of people with records. Most of those laws prevent or hinder access to work by requiring background checks, for example. Research shows that applicants with a criminal record are about half as likely to hear from employers as those without a file.
“We’ve seen so many people in our program applying for many jobs, but not seeing results,” says Pyon.
Permanent work can reduce recidivism. But because people with a past struggle to find work, they often end up in temporary, low-paying jobs. Pyon said unlimited money can help people who have been in prison achieve some financial stability to change their lives and prevent a recurrence.
Forty-three percent of people released from prison in Illinois reoffend within three years of their release, according to a 2018 report by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, an impartial sentencing advisory group created by the state’s General Assembly in 2009. Founded. Reoffending is costly: Illinois taxpayers pay about $151,000 when someone reoffends and goes back to prison. In 2018, the council estimated that recidivism would cost Illinois about $13 billion over five years.
Marlon Chamberlain, project manager of Fully Free, a Heartland Alliance campaign to abolish permanent sentences in Illinois, said guaranteed income programs also ease the psychological burden of having to go from incarceration to being self-sufficient and supporting a family. .
“When most people come home from prison, they have nothing. They’re pretty much starting over,” he said, adding that people often need basic essentials such as hygiene products, bus tickets and clothing.
Chamberlain said knowing there is a financial buffer gives people returning from prison a sense of stability, more room to explore their passions and pursue work they value.
“I think it gives you the opportunity to breathe and think about what you want to do [after incarceration] without the worry of ‘I have to take care of myself now,’” Chamberlain said.
Leslie Hurtado and Brian Young Jr. are 2022 City Bureau Summer Civic Reporting Fellows. Sarah Conway, senior reporter for the City Bureau on jobs and the survival economy in Chicago, contributed to this report. You can reach her with tips at [email protected]
The program will pay out $500 per month to each of the 5,000 low-income families.