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Is a guaranteed income program right for Washington? Lawmakers are considering it

caption: Washington State Capitol
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Washington State Capitol
Northwest News Network

Guaranteed Basic Income could become a reality in Washington state. State lawmakers have introduced a bill that would provide monthly cash payments to people who are low income, with no strings attached, that would last for up to three years.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

The prime sponsor is State Representative Liz Berry of the 36th District in Seattle. She told KUOW’s Kim Malcolm the payments would apply to anyone making 50% or less than area median income.

Representative Liz Berry: To put that into context, if you live in Seattle in a single-person household, that would be if you make $40,000 a year. If you're in Yakima, it would be $24,750. Participants would receive monthly payments, for up to 36 months, equal to the cost of rent for a two-bedroom apartment unit in their area of residence. For Seattle, that would be a little under $2,000 a month. If you live in Yakima, it would be a little over $1,000 a month.

Kim Malcolm: Why is it so important to focus on rent, for instance, as being the core of this program?

Mostly because we learned that it depends on where you live, to know how much your expenses are. We all know how expensive the King County region is. Folks here just have more monthly expenses — rent, food, transportation, childcare — than in other parts of the state. We thought scaling it as we did made a lot of sense.

Why do you think Washington needs a program like this?

So many Washington families are living in or on the brink of poverty, and we know that giving people cash with no strings attached as quickly as possible actually works really well. We saw that during the pandemic. The government gave people modest stimulus payments that lifted 11 million Americans out of poverty. In fact, in 2020, the number of people living in poverty was at its lowest rate in decades.

We live in the richest nation in the world, and yet millions of our families, friends and neighbors struggle to pay their bills. I just don't think that's right. That's what guaranteed basic income is all about.

How is this going to be paid for?

I think first it's talking about unrigging the rules of Washington's upside-down tax codes. Working families, folks who qualify for this program, are currently paying seven times more of their income in taxes than the wealthiest among us. It doesn't really have to be this way.

There are also other proposals out there, including a wealth tax on billionaires, that could help fund a program like this. Also, the state is currently flush with cash, and I think that we should put it back in the pockets of people who are struggling.

What would you say to people who question or distrust just giving cash to somebody else, not sure that they're going to spend it in the best way?

I think that the pilot programs from around the country really speak for themselves. More people were able to afford food and housing, pay off debt, get full-time jobs, save for emergencies, preserve physical and mental health, and stay out of poverty. The data shows that this really works.

When you don't have to worry so much about taking care of your family's basic needs, you're in a much better position to focus at work and reimagine a different future for you and your family, whether that's going back to school, caring for young children during a difficult time like Covid, or looking for a new job. That's a privilege that you and I have, and I believe everyone should have this opportunity.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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