The courtyard at Midtown Square is surrounded by a 7-story apartment complex.
Guaranteed basic income programs are effective at stabilizing the finances of participants and improving societal outcomes, research has shown. (Doug Trumm)

Marcus Altheimer had just been released after 18 years in prison when he was chosen to participate in the new Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) pilot run by the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County (WDC). He had been doing all he could to prepare for his release, but once he was out, he was shocked to discover the effects of inflation on prices. “I came home with literally nothing in my pocket,” he said. “The class was a blessing. It came to me right on time.”

The class he’s referencing is the Money Mechanics class that participants in the GBI pilot were encouraged to attend. The class taught them the basics of personal finance from how to open a savings account to how to check a credit score to how to file taxes. Since participating in the GBI pilot, Altheimer has been able to start his own detailing business and save money to take his first vacation in almost 20 years. 

“It gave me the tools to gain back my independence,” he said of the program.

Marcus Altheimer. (Courtesy of Marcus Altheimer)

Workforce Development Council’s first GBI pilot, backed with a mixture of public and private funding, began in the fall of 2022 and provided 102 participants with $500 per month for 10 months. This first cohort was 88% people of color, 58% women, and 35% people with kids. Participants had to be below 200% of the federal poverty line and live in King County. 

Funds were dispersed by several community partners including Community Passageways, Trac Associates, the YWCA, Neighborhood House, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, and North Seattle College. Participants included low-income people, students, justice-impacted people re-entering society, and domestic violence survivors.

The WDC is one of 12 such workforce councils throughout the state of Washington. Their main focus is workforce development and the implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act passed in 2014, and they see themselves as a network of more than 40 community-based organizations in King County.

Marisol Tapia Hopper, WDC’s Director of Strategic Partnerships and Funding, said this uniquely positions them to offer a robust GBI program that includes many additional supports and services.

“I think having that wraparound support for this pilot is different because it allows people to receive not just the GBI but also an array of services that are already connected with our goals,” Tapia Hopper said. “We have the money built into the EcSA (Economic Security for All) program for them to access training dollars, for them to access transportation, for them to access… other resources. And I think that’s what makes it unique. And I think we were able to see the results that we saw because of that.”

Many GBI pilots strongly support the idea of providing monetary support for their participants with no strings attached. Since their GBI pilot was added as an optional component to their EcSA program, the WDC took a different approach. One of the requirements of being enrolled in the EcSA program is for participants to have an individual employment plan. In addition, participants who were chosen for the GBI pilot had to attend monthly check-ins with their case managers, who were tasked with helping them stay on track with their goals and identifying additional areas where they might need support. 

In other words, the participants didn’t only receive $500 a month. They were given access to career counseling, funds for training programs, and had access to funds for emergency transportation and housing needs. They were encouraged to attend the Money Mechanics class, as well as being given access to a personal financial coach. Participants who finished the class were given matching funds if they chose to contribute to their savings accounts. 

Positive results

The results of the pilot, recently released in a report conducted by Applied Interference, show the success of this approach. “This project did make a difference in people’s lives,” Dr. Elizabeth Moore, the head of Applied Interference, said. 

Employment rose from 37% to 66%, and job quality increased, reflected both in increased wages and increased access to benefits. Nearly half the participants had begun short-term job training by the end of the pilot. Financial security increased, with the percentage of people who could “always or almost always” pay their required bills doubling and the percentage who had any savings almost doubling as well. Participants also reported an overall increase in their quality of life.

The program also increased completion rates for students enrolled at North Seattle College. While the first pilot had a small sample size, 100% of participants enrolled at the college completed their programs, while overall the college only has a 50-55% completion rate. Hopper said, “Having direct, flexible financial assistance allows us to also support the higher education system with not only that retention, but also making sure people are earning those credentials and kind of moving up with their career goals.”

These results are in line with the GBI pilots that have been conducted all over the country over the last four years. In addition to greater financial security, GBI programs tend to lead to improved health, increased food and housing security, and increased educational outcomes and opportunities for both children and adults. Six months into the Denver Basic Income program, which gave direct cash assistance to people who were unhoused, the percentage of participants who reported living in homes they rented or owned increased substantially, with no one in the group that received $1000 per month reporting sleeping outside. 

Interestingly, while debt repayment improved slightly, participants in WDC’s GBI pilot did see an increase in debt by the end of the program, which might be partially explained by them being able to qualify for loans they couldn’t receive prior. Participants tended to use the payments for basic necessities such as housing, food, and medical care. They also used the payments to tide them over during trainings and job searches so they could afford to wait for a better job. About half believed the positive impact of the program would last after its completion, although many did suggest the program length be extended to 12 months. 

“What we’re specifically trying to study with these pilots is the impact of this type of support for people who are experiencing poverty,” Joe Taylor, Communications Lead at WDC, said. “We have all this research to identify populations that are experiencing barriers.”

Antonia Taylor, also known as Toni, was another participant in the GBI pilot. She had been out of prison for a few years when she was accepted to the program. The monthly payments allowed her to pay off one of her fines and get a small business off the ground. “They need more programs like that so we can feel like we’re being productive citizens in society,” Taylor said. “Being able to learn something in the process of getting a little help is awesome.”

Antonia “Toni” Taylor. (Courtesy of Toni Taylor)

She is also in the process of writing a memoir about her experiences. “That class helped my self esteem by allowing me to know I could do it by saving money,” she said. She said she is determined to stay out of prison and continue to help people in any way she can. 

The value of connection

Gyanendra Subba, the WDC project manager for the program, said one thing that stood out for him about the participants who had been involved in the criminal legal system was the sense of community engendered by the Money Mechanics class. “According to the evaluation, it also says they were suffering from isolation, and then the program, the cohort, brought them together,” Subba said.

Both Antonia Taylor and Marcus Altheimer agreed. “On the inside you’re surrounded by individuals 24/7. You really have no peace outside of the cell,” Altheimer said. “Coming home and still being around individuals who can relate to your plight is still therapeutic in a sense. You’re going through the same struggles. You’re able to lean on one another so it’s not so overbearing.”

“Being in class we can relate to each other,” Taylor said.

“These classes epitomize the word reintegration,” Altheimer continued. “Reintegration is: we are going to not only push you back into society, we are going to hold your hand during the process of reintegrating you back into society. That’s the true beauty of community.”

They agreed that they would love to have more classes beyond the Money Mechanics class.

GBI can lead to safer communities

It is no longer a new idea that income inequality can lead to increased violence, including homicides. GBI programs aim right for the root of this problem, which suggests that not only could they improve health outcomes, food and housing security, and employment, but they could also play a real role in improving public safety in our communities. Julia Schleimer, a research data analyst with the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, and PhD Candidate in Epidemiology at University of Washington pointed to research establishing such a link.

“There is a strong and well-established link between violence, including gun violence, and both poverty and income inequality,” Schleimer said. “For example, a national study found that higher county-level income inequality was associated with higher firearm homicide rates among Black Americans. Another study of youth in the US found that half of firearm-related deaths, 66% of all firearm homicides, and 30% of firearm suicides are associated with living in areas with high concentrated poverty.” 

Schleimer and her colleagues published a paper in December of 2022 that summarized the existing literature on the link between income support policies such as GBI programs and firearm violence specifically.

“While there are relatively few studies on this particular topic, all of them suggest that income support policies reduce risk of firearm violence,” Schleimer said. “Other work on economic policies more generally, including higher minimum wage, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and more generous unemployment benefits, indicates these policies could reduce multiple forms of violence, including firearm violence.”

This is particularly relevant in Seattle, where gun violence rates have been staying stubbornly high even while murder rates have plummeted (down 36%). As of the end of March in Seattle, shootings and shots fired are 26% higher than they were during the same period last year. While the Crime Prevention Pilot proposed by Mayor Bruce Harrell includes a suite of technologies not proven to decrease violent crime, GBI programs could theoretically help address the root causes of gun violence in communities. 

And WDC’s GBI pilot is not the only GBI program currently operating in the area. King County has been running their own small GBI program, as has the Lavender Rights Project. And over the next five years Hummingbird Indigenous Family Services is giving $1250 per month to Indigenous pregnant people through their child’s third birthday for up to 150 families.

What’s next

Following on the success of their first GBI pilot, WDC is now running two more pilots. Begun in fall 2023, one will give $500 per month to 73 folks for 10-12 months, with an emphasis on people of color, people impacted by the criminal legal system, people experiencing homelessness, and single parent families. This program includes a few students from the first cohort who are completing their training. The other began at the beginning of 2024 and will give $1000 per month to 125 folks for a year, focusing on Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. 

Andrea Altheimer, the director of re-entry at Community Passageways, wants to see more classes offered beyond the Money Mechanics class. “The funds should be able to support individuals in need further than just the classes they’ve taken so far,” she said.

Tapia Hopper spoke about promising work on the state level through the Poverty Reduction Workgroup. The group’s 10-year plan to reduce poverty in the state recommended direct cash payments to people experiencing poverty as a way to move them to self sufficiency.

“I think more funding is needed to allow us to do more robust evaluation,” Tapia Hopper said. “I think it would be nice to do for this new evaluation a return on investment, do some analysis in terms of what it means for our economy and what it means for other entities that might be unsure about it and use it to gain support for this work.”

As for Marcus Altheimer, he’s in complete support of the GBI pilot and thinks it should be offered to everyone coming home from prison. “There’s a saying that says if we knew better, we’d do better,” he said. “It costs taxpayers a whole lot less money to educate an individual than it does to incarcerate that same individual. Society would benefit as a whole.”

Article Author

Amy Sundberg is the publisher of Notes from the Emerald City, a weekly newsletter on Seattle politics and policy with a particular focus on public safety, police accountability, and the criminal legal system. She also writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. She is particularly fond of Seattle’s parks, where she can often be found walking her little dog.