Arlington, Virginia, gave $500 to low-income families no strings attached. It helped them catch up on bills, but many still struggle to afford housing.
- Arlington’s Guarantee, a guaranteed income program, helped participants secure better jobs and pay off debts.
- While the program was largely beneficial, participants still faced housing insecurity.
Participants of a guaranteed income program in a city outside Washington, DC, said they obtained better-paying jobs and paid off debts — though many went into more debt paying for housing.
Arlington’s Guarantee, launched in September 2021, is a guaranteed income pilot that gave 200 randomly selected low-income working families in Arlington, Virginia, $500 a month with no strings attached for 18 months. The Arlington Community Foundation and Arlington County Department of Human Services launched the program.
In a new report, participants reported using funds to set long-term financial goals, pay off debt, save money for their kids' education, pursue their own education, and cover basic needs such as food and transportation. The payments were privately funded and totaled $1.8 million directly to recipients.
At the start of 2024, there are nearly 150 guaranteed income pilot programs nationwide, testing out varying degrees of payments, length, and participant qualifications. Some programs released results saying participants mostly spent the payments on housing, while others say participants focused on getting out of debt. While responses to these programs from participants have been positive, many say life remains difficult after the payments stop.
Some programs are working to get funding for future iterations or to extend their programs — which can be difficult amid opposition from state and local governments in states such as Texas and South Dakota.
Participants in Arlington said they cut back on overtime or weekend work while getting better jobs or pursuing certifications. They saw improvements in their physical and mental health, as well as a stronger sense of connection to their communities. Parents also became more involved in their children’s lives.
However, with inflation still hurting the wallets of lower-income households, skyrocketing housing prices, and the lifting of eviction moratoriums, Arlington’s guaranteed income program highlighted difficulties in resolving housing insecurity.
Aggregate household debt increased during the program, while many said they were still severely rent-burdened by the end of the program. Even though four in five households had local housing grants, averaging about $711 a month, the median household paid 54% of their income on rent.
Still, nearly every participant said they were better off at the end of the program. The report said participants “have more bandwidth to think beyond getting by today to set goals and plan for tomorrow.”
Qualifying for the program
Participants were eligible for the program if they made under 30% of the area's median income, or about $45,630 for a family of four. That group includes about 24,000 county residents who are disproportionately families of color in essential positions.
150 families were selected from the county’s housing grant program, while an additional 25 were households with immigrants lacking permanent legal status and another 25 had members who were previously incarcerated. Slightly over half of the participants were African American/Black, while 30% were Hispanic.
According to the report, the 2023 median annual income for a family of four in Arlington County was $152,100. The county also has among the highest housing costs in the nation, data from the Economic Research Institute shows. For the 10% of households making under 30% of the county's median income, median living expenses are about three times what they earn. The county is home to Amazon’s second headquarters, as well as various other technology companies.
The program worked with local and state agencies to ensure these cash payments did not impact participants’ eligibility for other benefits and subsidies. Participants also could request coaching for long-term economic planning, which came in handy given many participants were newly able to open bank accounts.
A participant enrollment survey showed that only 9% could pay off a $400 emergency expense at the program’s start, while 60% said they were worried about running out of food. About three-fourths of participants said they were employed at the program's start.
Participants’ lives improved — but housing remains a huge concern
Nearly two in five participants said they used the extra income for groceries — the percentage of participants worried about running out of food fell from 61% to 42% — while almost a third paid bills and debts. Transportation access was another major improvement, as the percentage of participants who had no trouble paying for transportation grew from 68% to 86%. Many also said they could do activities as a family beyond basic needs.
Only 20% said they used the extra income to pay rent, slightly less than those who used it for miscellaneous expenses like car repairs, medical bills, or job training.
Compared to the control group that didn't receive payments, participants had significantly better employment outcomes. While the percentage of employed control group families stayed the same at 74%, the participants’ employment rate jumped from 75% to 87%. About 92% of participants — compared to 75% of control group households — reported paying $1,300 or more in rent and utilities each month in addition to their housing grant.
While control group families saw median monthly incomes from work rise from $1,280 to $1,400 over the 18 months, incomes for participants rose from $1,200 to $1,640. When looking only at employed participants, median income rose from $1,573 to $1,900 per month. Participants reported being able to buy interview clothes or have more financial security in between old and new positions.
When factoring in other sources of income, such as Social Security or child support, the control group’s income rose 40% while the participants’ income rose 84%. This contributed to improvements in mental and physical well-being — the percentage of participants who had zero days in which stress or anxiety prevented them from doing tasks rose from 54% to 72% during the 18 months, while the percentage of participants who had zero days in which poor physical health impeded daily activities increase from 60% to 74%.
While the program gave most participants significantly more stability, nearly all said they would still be unable to pay an unexpected $400 expense using their savings, compared to 84% of those in the control group.
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