Meet Chicagoans who plan to apply for the city’s guaranteed income pilot

Cheryse Singleton-Nobles
Cheryse Singleton-Nobles sings a song with her students at Cheryse's Place, a home day care in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood. Singleton-Nobles is one of thousands of Chicagoans who plan to apply for the city's new guaranteed income pilot program. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ News
Cheryse Singleton-Nobles
Cheryse Singleton-Nobles sings a song with her students at Cheryse's Place, a home day care in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood. Singleton-Nobles is one of thousands of Chicagoans who plan to apply for the city's new guaranteed income pilot program. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ News

Meet Chicagoans who plan to apply for the city’s guaranteed income pilot

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For Cheryse Singleton-Nobles, life these days feels like an unending struggle.

“It feels like I’m running around in a circle a lot of times,” said the 49-year-old home day care owner in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

Singleton-Nobles’ day care business, Cheryse’s Place, was hit hard during the first year of the pandemic. And now, inflation is cutting into her bottom line.

Singleton-Nobles said it takes about $6,000 a month to keep the day care’s doors open, and that’s about all she’s bringing in these days.

“Whatever it is, I put it right back inside of the day care or to run the household,” Singleton-Nobles said, adding that she operates the day care on the first floor of her building while she and her family live on the second floor. “I don’t have the option of paying myself or anything like that, because I want to keep our doors open because I know our families need us.”

While she’s able to stay open, Singleton-Nobles said she is behind on various utility bills, and the rising cost of food and gas, in particular, have her worrying constantly: “The things that I’m wondering [are], ‘What am I going to feed the day care kids today? What am I going to feed my family today? How are we gonna put gas in the car? If I cut this light switch on, is it going to actually produce lights? And if I can’t produce lights today, where am I going to take these children that depend on me?’”

Singleton-Nobles is among thousands of residents who, in her words, “are hanging on by a thread,” and are planning to apply for the Chicago Resilient Communities Pilot.

The $31.5 million program is one of the biggest guaranteed basic income pilots in the United States, promising to dole out $500 monthly cash payments — no strings attached — to 5,000 struggling Chicago households for a year. The application period opens at 9 a.m. Monday. (Read more here for eligibility information and how to apply).

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said the guaranteed income pilot would be a key part of helping struggling Chicagoans get back on their feet after the pandemic.

“This pilot will advance our equitable economic pandemic recovery and make Chicago part of the national conversation about the impact of cash assistance,” Lightfoot said in February.

The eligibility criteria are as follows: Residents of Chicago, 18 years and older whose household incomes fall at or below 250% of the federal poverty line. That amounts to about $58,000 for a household of three — substantially more than what Singleton-Nobles and her husband are making.

According to a WBEZ analysis of 2020 census microdata prepared by the University of Minnesota, as many as 790,000 people meet that income requirement and could be eligible, technically, to apply for these 5,000 spots. About 40% of those people are Black 30% are Latino, 20% are white and 7% are Asian or Pacific Islanders, according to the analysis.

Much larger shares of the population could be eligible in the city’s South and West side neighborhoods compared to North Side areas, the analysis shows. In some parts of the South and West sides, which include the Chicago Lawn, East Garfield Park, Englewood, Greater Grand Crossing, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, South Lawndale, West Englewood and West Garfield Park communities, nearly 60% of adults meet the income requirement to apply for the cash pilot.

Some advocates say it’s these residents to whom the bulk of the pilot’s money should go.

“Some people would settle for a guaranteed income pilot project — regardless of the demographics — as long as it happened, and for me, that’s a failure,” said Richard Wallace, a member of the city’s advisory group for the cash pilot program. He also heads Equity and Transformation (EAT), a Garfield Park group helping formerly incarcerated residents in the informal economy.

Solomon Johnson, 35, is a member of EAT. Born to a drug-addicted mother, he said he spent much of his childhood and adolescent years in and out of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services system, and has done four stints in prison, mostly on drug charges.

In the last two years, he caught COVID-19, spent several weeks at the hospital, lost his apartment and developed a painful ulcer on his leg for which he has had six surgeries.

He has since been able to find a part-time job doing administrative tasks at an affordable housing building but wonders what his options are once his leg heals and he can move more easily.

“When you try to work a job, you got people throwing your background in your face, your back history,” Johnson said.

He hopes to apply for the guaranteed income program mostly to be able to supplement his income and pay his bills, which include paying for a nebulizer for his chronic bronchitis.

But more importantly, Johnson said, the $500 a month would help to “keep my mind off thinking about selling drugs. I’m trying not to go to the streets … so just trying to take it day by day.”

Solomon Johnson
Solomon Johnson, a member of the group Equity and Transformation, hopes to apply for the guaranteed income program mostly to be able to supplement his income and pay his bills, which include paying for a nebulizer for his chronic bronchitis. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News
Most Chicagoans who’ve been disconnected from the workforce in recent years could be eligible for the program. WBEZ’s analysis shows that nearly 60% of adults who’ve been out of work at some point in the past five years meet the program’s income requirement — more than double the percentage of income-eligible Chicagoans with steady work histories the past five years.

Wallace, with EAT, has some experience running a cash assistance pilot; his group has its own program called the Chicago Future Fund. He said he’s been heartened by early data from the city. It shows that a good percentage of people expressing interest in the program live on the South and West sides, in Black and brown neighborhoods.

“When I think about the communities that we represent work with — Englewood, Austin, West Garfield Park — those are the people that we all know need this the most,” Wallace said.

Harish I. Patel, executive director of Economic Security for Illinois and another member of the cash pilot advisory group, said in order to solicit applications from those who need the funds the most, the city’s outreach “has to be done equitably” and the application should be kept simple “so you’re not making people jump through a lot of hoops.”

For residents like Rosalia Salgado, in Hermosa, those hoops have long kept her from getting the help she needs.

The 31-year-old single mom, who is undocumented, says the cash pilot is one of the rare programs available to residents like her.

Salgado, who was two when her parents moved the family from Mexico, says the pandemic was the first year she was able to apply for some safety-net programs.

“So after all this help just is done, it’s pretty much done for us and the families out here that are struggling,” she said. “So that’s why this [cash pilot] is so important.”

Salgado works part-time with the advocacy group Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI); she also works weekends at Wingstop.

She said she makes about $1,500 a month and gets some help from the father of her two girls. But she still struggles to pay the bills, especially the high gas costs that pile up at the end of each winter.

Salgado said she plans to apply for the Chicago Resilient Communities Pilot, and if chosen, she said she would catch up on bills and save “for my children’s future, for their college, for anything that they might need in the future.”

Rosalia Salgado
Rosalia Salgado is pictured at her home in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. Salgado says the cash assistance pilot would help undocumented residents like her who are not eligible for other safety net programs Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ News
Patel, with Economic Security for Illinois, said that while 250% of the federal poverty line is still low-income, the city can prioritize those living in deep poverty — like Salgado, Johnson and Singleton-Nobles — by creating “a weighted system” for the lottery.

This will be the city of Chicago’s approach.

“These resources are prioritized for those that are living in poverty, so those that are at or below 100% [the federal poverty line], as well as those that live in communities that have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic,” said Skyler Larrimore, first deputy director of policy for the city.

Still, Larrimore said, the city is using the 250% threshold to cast the net wide and also target “those that are economically insecure, economically unstable, and currently not being served by the existing safety net.”

Daniel Lurie, Lightfoot’s chief of policy, added that while the cash pilot is a “critical … and innovative piece — and obviously a piece that will help people — it is 5,000 families, and we are acutely aware that that is not the scale of the problem.”

He said the mayor is “interested in seeing how this can live beyond the 12 months,” but that “will be a budget conversation come the summer and fall.”

Singleton-Nobles, in Bronzeville, said she hopes the city will invest in a long-term cash assistance program. But for now, she has her hopes up to be one of the 5,000 chosen this year.

For her, she added, the extra $500 a month would not only help her make a dent on her mounting bills for her own family, but it would also allow her to do more for her 12 day care students. If she’s chosen, Singleton-Nobles says she will breathe a sigh of relief and throw a big party for the little ones.

For now, she said she puts on a happy face for the kids, but she’s barely hanging on.

“Right now we are keeping our head above water, and we are holding on by a thread,” she said. “We’re not just sitting at home, we’re not being lazy. It’s not about a handout. It’s about survival.”

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.