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Atlanta rolls out pilot basic income program inspired by MLK Jr.

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Guaranteed income programs give cash directly to people in poverty, and pilots are now underway all across the country. It's an idea that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. promoted, and now a $13 million trial program is launching in his hometown. WABE's Sam Gringlas reports from Atlanta.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: This is a story about a big idea to fight a big problem - poverty. It's also a story about a place, Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward.

HOPE WOLLENSACK: We're standing right now right next to the reflecting pool where Dr. King is buried and just a block away from the house where Dr. King was born.

GRINGLAS: Hope Wollensack directs the Georgia Resilience and Opportunity Fund. She says after voting rights past King talked more and more about poverty.

WOLLENSACK: He knew that our civic rights are a bit hollow if we don't also have economic rights to back those up. And so among many of the reforms that he advocated for was a guaranteed income.

GRINGLAS: This spring, Wollensack's Organization will give hundreds of low-income Black women in King's neighborhood cash payments they can use however, an average of $850 a month for two years. It's a departure from traditional anti-poverty programs like food stamps. Wollensack says cash allows people to pay off debt, afford a reliable car or consistent child care.

WOLLENSACK: Those often with the lowest incomes are making some of the best financial decisions. And then that choice and agency component really reflects how we trust people to be experts in their own lives, and our current programs don't do that.

GRINGLAS: Organizers hope to prove programs like this one will help lift people out of poverty. Michelle Lockhart is confident it will. She's lived in the Old Fourth Ward most of her life. There were times when extra cash would have made a huge difference, like when she lost her job and couldn't make the car payment.

MICHELLE LOCKHART: The car people kept calling me like, hey, we need a payment. We need a payment. I'm trying to figure things out. And it stressed me out so badly to where I remember shaking.

GRINGLAS: Lockhart says it's impossible to start a business or hunt for a better job when you're struggling just to stay above water.

LOCKHART: The inability to get off of the hamster wheel. This kid is sick, so you don't take this kid to the doctor. You got to take off work. And now you're missing hours. And now you're going to have to come up short somewhere on some bill because you're missing days at work.

GRINGLAS: Even experts who embrace guaranteed income say it should be paired with other policies. Professor Luke Shaefer directs the Poverty Solutions Program at the University of Michigan. He says some traditional programs really do work like early childhood education. But he says policymakers need to ask...

LUKE SHAEFER: Would people be better off just if I gave them the money that I spent on this program than if I gave them this program?

GRINGLAS: Shaefer says the pandemic may have eroded some people's discomfort with giving cash directly to people facing economic hardship. Federal pandemic relief checks and the expanded child tax credit were fairly popular at the height of the pandemic and reduced child poverty, though that doesn't mean lawmakers will raise to fund guaranteed income on a big scale. Just look at proposals to make the federal expanded child tax credit permanent. They're now dead in Congress, and support has faded.

SHAEFER: It could be that we just had this historic moment when we took an approach like we hadn't been before that it was, like, incredibly successful. And then afterwards, we went back to our old ways.

GRINGLAS: On the patio of Dancing Goats coffee shop, where lattes cost five bucks and there's a West Elm and a Warby Parker next door, Amir Farokhi says Dr. King's neighborhood is changing rapidly. Farokhi chairs the guaranteed income pilot and represents Old Fourth Ward on City Council.

AMIR FAROKHI: So you have million-dollar homes on the same block as subsidized housing that was built 40, 50 years ago, and it's in many ways a reflection of Atlanta writ large.

GRINGLAS: Atlanta ranks among the top cities for income inequality in the country, but attracting state support to expand this no-strings program would be an uphill climb. In Georgia, Republicans have touted work requirements even for benefits like Medicaid. For now, this pilot is funded by philanthropic dollars, but Farokhi says public servants have to do more to address poverty.

FAROKHI: Whether you're working a 200k job a year or a 30k job a year, there should be a place for you in this neighborhood, in this city.

GRINGLAS: This spring, Farokhi and others hope they'll start chipping away at the inequities Dr. King preached about in this city more than half a century ago. For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.