Case Study

Cook County's Guaranteed Income Program

The Road To Permanence: From A One Time Direct Cash Transfer To The Largest Public Guaranteed Income (Gi) Program In U.S. History.

August 13, 2023

Introduction:

Cook County, Illinois, the second largest county by population in the United States, is home to over 5.1 million people, of which 13.8% live in poverty. The County has taken bold steps to address the pressing issue of poverty. Recognizing the economic hardships exacerbated by the pandemic, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle spearheaded a pilot project for one time direct cash transfers during the pandemic. The success of that pilot paved the way for the largest public Guaranteed Income (GI) program in U.S. history, the Cook County Promise, aimed at uplifting low-income families and promoting social equity. With $42 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated, the program aimed to provide $500 monthly cash payments for 3,250 low-income families over a period of 24 months.

After a competitive RFP process, Cook County selected international nonprofit GiveDirectly, which applied jointly with technology platform AidKit to implement the program. The pilot began accepting applications on October 6, 2022. Fifteen days later, over 233,000 applications had been received. It was a jumble of emotions — the pilot had gained tremendous momentum quickly–but it also painted a poignant picture of how many people in this community struggle to make ends meet every single day. The team set out to provide the best experience possible for applicants and participants, focusing on transparent, clear, and frequent communication. Robust infrastructure from the start created a foundation for the program to strike a balance between efficiency and excellent participant experience.

This case study highlights the challenges faced, the innovative solutions implemented, the profound impact being achieved, and the future outlook of Cook County's guaranteed income program.

The Challenge:

For years preceding the launch of Cook County Promise, there was an active coalition working to build political will and create the conditions for such a large scale program to even be considered. Without that community-led foundational work, Cook County Promise would not have been possible. In an effort to build on the incredible success of the local coalition and maintain the throughline of centering community voices, the implementation team set out to meet the next set of challenges–implementing an equitable application process, vetting applicants fairly, and distributing funds in ways that would reach everyone in the program, especially those with the most significant barriers to participation in financial systems. With the goal of establishing a permanent guaranteed income program in Cook County, the core challenge of implementing a program that would be able to withstand extreme political scrutiny emerged as a focus area. Integrity had to be incredibly high, without compromising an equitable and accessible experience for participants.

“AidKit and GiveDirectly clearly showed their experience and that they understood how complicated this pilot was going to be. Their teams anticipated barriers we hadn’t considered and brought solutions to make the roll out a success.”
– Pete Subkoviak, Former Director, Guaranteed Income and Economic Mobility, Cook County, Illinois

The Solution:

To ensure the program's integrity and compliance with public funding regulations, Cook County's GI program was planned knowing that it would need to be able to withstand extreme scrutiny. The program was designed to fit within the government framework, incorporating auditable verification processes and robust safeguards against fraud. Leveraging fraud prevention, detection, and mitigation tools provided by AidKit, GiveDirectly and the County were able to design and implement a robust fraud prevention plan capable of weathering attacks from fraud actors.  At the same time, participant experience was centered, upholding the values of dignity, deservedness, and equity that were the drivers around creating the program in the first place.

From a technical perspective, a program like this is incredibly complex. That’s why AidKit designed its platform to include things like text-to-speech, multiple language capabilities, options for the unbanked, and multiple ways to upload application documents. These aren’t just a list of features; they’re capabilities that make the application, lottery, and enrollment processes accessible and equitable. They’re also a good example of why Cook County said that “AidKit’s technology is beyond impressive.”

Leveraging AidKit’s tech platform, GiveDirectly led the design and user testing of an application that was easy for applicants to quickly understand and complete. Creating an accessible application while meeting the requirements of research and government can be extremely difficult. To achieve the goal, GiveDirectly leaned on their expertise and community feedback. GiveDirectly also worked with the County to develop a verification protocol to verify applicant eligibility and mitigate fraud, while ensuring pathways for priority populations who are often excluded, such as participants experiencing homelessness. In addition, GiveDirectly reduced applicant burden by working with Cook County agencies to verify applicant information.  GiveDirectly’s approach of using human-driven wraparound support to complement AidKit’s core tech infrastructure allowed for a balance between program integrity and excellent participant experience. Participant satisfaction rates were remarkably high, with 98% of participants reported being “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with the program, citing the quick and easy application and timely payments.

The Impact:

There is a growing body of research demonstrating that guaranteed income in the US works to pull people out of poverty, improve health outcomes, and make it easier for people to find jobs and take care of their children.

Cook County's GI program is not only transforming the lives of its participants but also generating broad public support and political will. By prioritizing participant voices and sharing success stories, the program has gained credibility and fostered trust within the community. Research continues to play a pivotal role, providing an evidence base that transcends political ideologies. The program's outcomes are being studied under a rigorous randomized controlled trial led by the The Inclusive Economy Lab at the University of Chicago. They are looking at the effect of cash on a diverse range of outcomes, such as economic well-being, education, health, and community engagement.

The research is also looking at administrative data, including on employment, income, benefit participation, and service utilization, to identify potential cost savings that the County will realize resulting from guaranteed income. Analyzing administrative data can help uncover areas where guaranteed income reduces costs and build the fiscal case for permanence. As organizers await those results, there’s already cause for celebration as the program has been significantly more affordable to implement than many other social safety net programs–with only about 8% of the program’s funding being spent on administration (4.5%) and evaluation costs (3.5%). These cost savings and the direct impact that the guaranteed income payments have on families make it an efficient way to help low-income families, without a significant portion of funds being siphoned off to cover administrative costs.

The Future:

To ensure long-term funding, Cook County's program explored innovative models, such as leveraging Cannabis tax revenue. Diversifying funding sources is being prioritized to mitigate risks associated with relying on a single stream. Anticipating future challenges, the program remains focused on transparency, evidence-based impact, and the ability to withstand scrutiny and auditing. Strict oversight mechanisms were implemented to solidify the program's resilience against political shifts. The program's early success serves as a model for other regions seeking to address economic disparities and promote social equity.

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“If you work in local government and are looking for an efficient, equitable, and proven way to support residents’ economic recovery with American Rescue Plan Act dollars before the deadline to obligate funds by December 31, 2024, I highly recommend implementing a guaranteed income program. It’s cost effective, can be implemented quickly, and will have a direct and meaningful impact on the lives of those receiving funds as they work to recover from the economic shockwaves of the pandemic.”
Pete Subkoviak
Former Director, Guaranteed Income and Economic Mobility, Cook County, Illinois

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