Joe Malinconico Paterson Press
PATERSON — As many as 150 low-income Paterson families would get $500 per month with no restrictions on how they spend the money under an initiative being proposed by Mayor Andre Sayegh.
Under the so-called “Guaranteed Income” program, the money for the monthly payments would come from private donors, the mayor said. The city would conduct a computerized lottery to determine which applicants –who must have household incomes below the area median — would get payments, he said.
Sayegh, who first proposed the program in an op-ed column for NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network, said the first batch of “Guaranteed Income” payments likely won’t be issued until next summer. But a task force he created to launch the program began discussing fundraising strategies this week and some members will be participating in a series of online workshops with people from cities around the country to learn about the program.
“Guaranteed Income” got its start in Stockton, California, in the spring of 2019 and that program – profiled in a story by The New Yorker magazine three months ago — has inspired other places to try to do something similar. Newark seems to be the furthest along among New Jersey cities. Officials in Essex County recently completed a 30-page report that is supposed to serve as the blueprint for implementing the program in Newark.
The theory is that the no-strings-attached cash would provide low-income families a way to address emergencies, like auto repairs or an unanticipated utility bill, without forcing them to cut back on necessities like food and clothing. One of the goals is for families to use the money for things that might improve their situations, like education and health care, and possibly to start accumulating savings.
Critics around the country have predicted that recipients would waste the “Guaranteed Income” money on expensive clothes, unneeded gadgets and drugs or alcohol. But proponents argue that’s not the case.
“I have faith that people will spend it on appropriate items,” Sayegh said.
Some members of the Paterson City Council were unaware of the initiative when contacted by a reporter about the mayor’s plans. Sayegh said he was unsure whether the program would need any type of approval by the council.
“We haven’t had the benefit of a discussion on this,” said Council President Flavio Rivera.
The council president said it was “incomprehensible” for the mayor to talk publicly about the program without knowing whether he needed the governing body’s cooperation.
“I hope he’s not just trying to make news,” Rivera said.
The council leader said he would have more faith in the initiative once the mayor can identify donors willing to provide the funding. City officials estimate they will need between $300,000 and $1 million per year for the program, depending on whether 50 or 150 families are enrolled.
So far, Sayegh’s task force is populated by public officials, academics and community leaders. The mayor said he is looking to add task force members with financial connections to assist in recruiting donors.
Several of the current task force members expressed enthusiasm for the mayor’s idea.
“We have a disproportionate level of poverty here in Paterson,” said the Rev. Weldon McWilliams, pastor of Christ Temple Baptist Church. “Our residents need assistance like this.”
Mark Dinglasan, executive director of the CUMAC food pantry in Paterson, said there’s evidence in other cities’ Guaranteed Income programs that recipients spend a significant portion of their monthly payments on food.
Dinglasan said CUMAC would enroll any Guaranteed Income participants as pantry clients so they could use the money for other things. But he also acknowledged that it was very likely the people picked for the program already may getting food from CUMAC.
Prior to the pandemic, CUMAC had about 2,200 monthly clients, the executive director said. Since COVID-19 hit the city, CUMAC has been getting more than 3,000 clients per month, he added.
Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org