ITHACA, N.Y.—The fourth monthly payment of $450 was just made to participants in the Ithaca Guaranteed Income (IGI) pilot program that the City of Ithaca first announced last December.

Though the whole enrollment process took a little longer than initially planned, payments began in June, and each participant was given a reloadable debit card that is replenished with funds on the 15th of each month.

The program was designed with the intention of helping caretakers with some additional money for their responsibilities that may be without compensation — like taking care of children or an elderly person.

Asha Sanaker, a local resident and mother of two, supports universal basic income (UBI), and originally applied for the IGI program over the winter while applications were open.

Sanaker said that, pre-pandemic, she had worked a traditional job, always ensuring that bills were paid and her children had what they needed. When the pandemic hit and she got laid off, she decided that she wanted to pursue her passion of writing full-time. “I was like, OK, this is my shot to finally figure out how to build my life around my writing,” she said.

After writing freelance for a while, Sanaker started a paid Substack newsletter, though she knew that she and her family would be “living pretty close to the bone for a while.”

Sanaker didn’t hear anything regarding her IGI application for quite some time, eventually getting a text in the spring notifying her that she had been accepted into the program.

“To find out that they were going to give me $450 bucks a month, at that point, I was like ‘OK, this money can stretch longer,'” she said. “That’s kind of where things are right now. At this point, I use it exclusively for my grocery bills for the three of us for a month.”

Though it does help with her groceries, Sanaker said that she typically does run out a week or 10 days before the next card reload, but that it’s very different than having to cover her family’s whole grocery bill by herself.

Sanaker said that another reason she believes in UBI would only be beneficial is that the pandemic unemployment proved that “people don’t just take the money and then not do anything — people continue to work, people continue to spend in the economy.”

To make the IGI program or any UBI program more helpful, Sanaker said that raising the amount provided would help provide “more of a bumper to really be able to figure things out when they need to,” and that having it be “another reliable source of income” would be huge, though she acknowledges that it seems unlikely that a program could ever cover everything.

Sanaker does not receive any additional type of assistance, but she does have questions about how participating in IGI will affect taxes and other types of assistance if she were to apply for it.

Sanaker said that she’s “incredibly happy for the money,” and that the payments themselves have been seamless, though a higher payment would undoubtably help more.

Ithaca Guaranteed Income dashboard

IGI recently got added to the national guaranteed income dashboard, and while it doesn’t share an overwhelming amount of data, it does show that across the 110 participants, 34.8% spend the cash on food and groceries, like Sanaker.

The second largest expense category is financial transactions at 28.1%, followed by retail sales and services at 19.2%.

Transportation expenses only account for 6.7%, housing and utilities at 5.6% and healthcare at just 1.3%. Other categories include educational expenses, travel, leisure and entertainment, and miscellaneous.

The data only includes all non-cash expenditures made on the debit cards, as participants do have the option to participate entirely unmonitored by taking the funds out as cash and opting out of the surveys that are sent out periodically.

In the press release announcing the dashboard, Director of Housing Initiatives at the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County Liddy Bargar said that “We can see that by providing cash payments, programs like IGI are effective tools in improving racial and gender equity.”

Monitoring and data collection from the willing participants will continue through the remaining months of the program and findings will be available on the dashboard as numbers change.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...