Kofi Kenyatta
Kofi Kenyatta is the senior policy and practice director at UpTogether. (Courtesy photo)

Arlyssa Heard struggles with crushing debt from student loans and a high-interest car payment. The single mom was excited to get a promotion at her job, but did not want a huge raise.

“The extra $150 extra take-home in my paycheck meant losing benefits worth far more,” she said.

Detroit residents like Heard hear over and over again they’re to blame for their financial situations and the state of their neighborhoods. They’re told they can pull themselves up by the bootstraps if only they try hard enough. Yet the system that’s supposed to help Arlyssa keeps her from getting ahead.

Our current economic system is not working to improve the lives of people in this city.  Every day, Detroiters are struggling to make ends meet while enduring exploitative, poverty-wage jobs and punitive, deficit-based social support programs. For decades now, Detroit has been ranked among the cities with the highest rates of poverty. As a native Detroiter, this sobering reality hits home. Detroiters deserve better…Detroiters demand better!

Guaranteed income is a powerful tool.

More than 100 community groups and faith leaders, residents and businesses have signed a letter to elected officials demanding that Detroit join the growing number of municipalities with a guaranteed income pilot. The goal is to push for a federally-funded guaranteed income by demonstrating the benefits. By setting aside at least  $1.5 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars – to be matched by a philanthropic partner – we can invest in our Detroit neighbors immediately and lay the groundwork for much-needed changes to our social support systems.

Here’s how it works: Participants get recurring cash payments that they can use however they want, without any restrictions or preconditions. (Guaranteed income is different from Universal Basic Income, which distributes cash transfers to an entire population. Rather, guaranteed income distributes cash to a specific group of individuals who experience systemic challenges inadequately addressed by current programs.)

Direct cash is a proven tool that works. Data from multiple guaranteed income pilots across the country—as well as the expanded monthly Child Tax Credit in 2021—have shown that direct cash payments are one of the most efficient and effective ways to lift people out of poverty. Participants experience drastic improvements to job prospects, food and housing security, financial stability, and their overall well-being and mental health.

We have to let go of harmful stereotypes that people experience poverty due to their own failings. We need to embrace a policy shift that recognizes that Detroit residents are experts in their own lives. People need investment in their goals and full control over their choices. They deserve the dignity to choose their pathways to economic mobility.

“We’ve made plenty of gains and we keep on climbing, but we aren’t at the level where we should be,” said Heard, who signed the letter calling for a guaranteed income. “We need this because when we benefit, everyone else benefits.”

What we’ve been doing to reduce poverty in this city isn’t working. Poverty is a policy choice, and as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure, the guaranteed income.” In this upcoming budget cycle, Detroit has an opportunity to take a step in this direction by making an investment in its greatest asset, the people.

Kofi Kenyatta is the Senior Policy and Practice Director at UpTogether.

Join the Conversation


  1. If, and it is a big “if” taxpayer money should be handed out to people, based on whatever metric of need or merit is in vogue, direct cash payments is probably the most efficient way.

    But what happens when ARPA funds, or foundation money runs out? Are we creating addicts by hooking recipients on a “guaranteed” source of income that, actually isn’t guaranteed at all? What happens when the spigot runs dry?

    And yes, poverty is partially a result of government policy, but not always in the ways it seems that you are alluding to. Crime drives poverty far more than poverty drives crime. I’m referring not only to street crime, but also government crime, City Council crime…

    1. It’s more about an income floor, as a change to how society works, and addresses “poverty” in a FAR more cost effective manor. In general, if you add up all different welfare systems we have right now, they probably end up being equally expensive, if not more so, but yield far less positive results.
      And if UBI works as well as some people seem to think, then the economic benefits and reduction in poverty, those factors ALONE could actually generated more new economic wealth for areas, than the program costs.
      There’s also a new valid argument that can be made, for a UBI in the form of a Citizen’s AI Dividend. Since AI is rapidly gaining enough abilities, where it could soon replace a lot of average-level jobs.. And importantly, these AIs would not exist without all our data, that gets collected on the internet, and used to train them. So a UBI in the form of a Citizen’s AI Dividend doesn’t just make sense, it may be essential to keeping the economy functioning, as AI reduces the amount of work most people can compete for.

  2. How will this program avoid the abuse that the Section 8 housing program experiences:
    1) Participants are too lazy to learn the program and epect landlords to do all THEIR work
    2) Voucher holders consistently allow others to move into the property, violating the program, yet putting a landlord in a predicament of do they report the violaton or not?
    3) Many voucher holders have cash side hustles and drive brand new, expensive cars.
    4) Voucher holders cause heavy damage to properties, but still get to keep their vouchers.

    Overall, the program is NOT appreciated by those that receive the free funds.

    1. Drew, that’s faulty framing.. And placing all the blame on a boogie-man overgeneralized idea of a poor person. You’re assumptions are false more often than not. Remember, anecdotal personal evidence shouldn’t be used to say “they’re all like that”, that’s generalizing and it leads nowhere but to cruelty and suffering.
      The problem you’re referring to, is a problem of a poorly designed welfare system, that doesn’t actually help but rather keeps them trapped, NOT any of the recipients themselves. Basic Income is designed from an entirely different mindset, and does not go away just because they start earning more, thus they’re FAR more likely to better their situations.
      The idea of Basic Income is not about your requirements, or even about how people initially view it. It’s an unconditional income floor, without means-testing of ANY form. It provides just enough to keep people from falling into homelessness, but not enough for anything else. However that is enough of a mental basis for most people to significantly improve their lives, by lifting a survival stress off their minds.

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