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'A Level Playing Field': A Milwaukee Alderwoman's Push For Universal Basic Income In Milwaukee

Courtesy of Chantia Lewis
Ald. Chantia Lewis has proposed a program that would give 50 low wage and working households across Milwaukee a $500 per month stipend to study the effects of universal basic income in the city.

A Milwaukee alderwoman wants the city to adopt a “universal basic income” pilot program.

The proposal by Ald. Chantia Lewis would supplement low-income families’ wages, so they’re making a living wage. She says cities across the country are beginning to experiment with universal basic income programs, and she wants Milwaukee to do the same.

Lewis says she’s modelled her initiative after one in Stockton, California. Under it, the city would put out a call to residents who meet certain qualifications, such as being unemployed or underemployed. Then, they would apply to receive a monthly allowance for an allotted period of time. The city would then choose the participants.

“We would select, randomly select, a total of 50 households throughout the city. So, this is 25 lower income folks and then 25 working family households. We would provide them with a monthly stipend for 18 months. So, it’s a $500 18-month program where they would be handheld and walked through because the goal is to bring them into a more comfortable space that they can provide for their families a lot more,” Lewis says.

Lewis says at the end of the 18-month period, data would be compiled to determine the participants’ greatest needs, based on how they spent the money.

WUWM's Marti Mikkelson's full interview with Ald. Chantia Lewis.

She says the program would be funded privately and she’s working on securing donors. Lewis has been working on this proposal for more than a year and calls it one that’s “near and dear” to her heart.

“I’m passionate about this issue because I see that number one, if the pandemic has taught us nothing, it has taught us that we have to do a little bit more to support out families and to make sure that we are eradicating disparities in addition to making sure that there’s a level playing field for all who live in this wonderful country. It is just one of the responsibilities that I feel that we as government have for our people who live here,” she says.  

The Milwaukee Common Council took a preliminary vote more than a year ago, on whether to establish a universal basic income program here. The vote was 10-5 in favor of the idea.

Lewis says she expects to make a final presentation to the council later this year. 

“We’re just working on the financing portion, the campaign for the philanthropic community, which we will be launching in the next couple of months. Then, it will come back to the council for full approval. Would I see all 15 members support it? Probably not, but I would hope to see at least the same amount as we did before,” Lewis says.  

The program was tried for 18 months in Stockton, California. Then the city’s mayor announced last summer that it would be extended for another six months, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.