Strategy overview

  • Cash at regular intervals: Guaranteed income programs provide unconditional cash transfers to residents at regular intervals, often monthly or biweekly. Transfers can vary in size, but many programs have experimented with around $500 per month.
  • Unrestricted funds: Residents generally receive the same amount of money at each interval, and there are no restrictions on how the funds can be spent.
  • Distributed via debit card: Cash is often provided to residents via debit cards, which allows residents without bank accounts to benefit from programs.
  • Public administration, mixed funding streams: Some guaranteed income programs are privately funded and publicly operated, while others are run entirely by the public sector. Nonprofit agencies often provide outreach, logistical, and marketing support.

What evidence supports this strategy?

While initial results from several experimental and quasi-experimental studies on guaranteed income are promising, further research on long-term programs and effects is necessary to fully assess strategy impacts.

  • A 2020 research synthesis on the existing body of scientific and qualitative evidence found that results from guaranteed income programs are generally positive, alleviating poverty and improving health and education outcomes. The synthesis also identified that effects on labor market participation are minimal.

  • A 2022 research synthesis found that cash transfer programs and supplemental assistance programs can have positive, multi-generational effects.

Is this strategy right for my community?

Implementing a guaranteed income project has been shown to improve outcomes predictive of upward mobility. These outcomes, identified by the Urban Institute, are financial security, opportunities for income, and wealth-building opportunities.

City and county leaders can assess local conditions for each of these outcomes using the metrics below, identified by the Urban Institute. This assessment can be used to determine whether this strategy is appropriate for their community. (Note: these metrics are a starting point for self-assessment and are not intended to be comprehensive.)

All cities and counties with populations over 75,000 can receive a customized data sheet here.

  • Measuring financial security in your community: Examine the share of households with debt in collections. These data are available from the Urban Institute’s Debt in America website.

  • Measuring opportunities for income in your community: Examine the household income at 20th, 50th, and 80th percentiles. These data are available from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

  • Measuring wealth-building opportunities in your community: Examine the ratio of the share of a community’s housing wealth held by a racial or ethnic group to the share of households of the same group. These data are available from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Best practices in implementation

  • Design programs alongside residents: Several effective guaranteed income programs have spent significant periods (up to 9 months) engaging with community members to guide program execution. This engagement can include frequent town halls, focus groups, and interviews with residents. This extensive process can increase trust and engagement with the program and address logistical hurdles that could otherwise undermine the approach.
  • Prioritize data collection and transparency: To help demonstrate the program’s impact, collect extensive data from participants via surveys and expense tracking. Alongside this tracking, successful programs may create a resident advisory board, which can serve as an effective means of answering questions from the public. For some residents, this type of transparency and ongoing engagement can increase comfortability in participating.
  • Preserve existing benefits: Because regular cash transfers may alter a recipient’s income status, implementing agencies must carefully design a strategy that ensures a recipient’s public benefits will not be impacted. This may include partnering with city and/or county human service agencies to create waivers or launching a “hold harmless” fund to reimburse recipients in the event that other public benefits are reduced as a result of participating in the program.
  • Devote resources to storytelling: To counteract prevailing narratives about unconditional cash transfers, consider funding a pool of recipients to share stories of how cash transfers have impacted their lives. This can help the program demonstrate how the cash is overwhelmingly used for essential items, like food, clothing, and utilities.