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Loudoun County Board approves ‘steroid shot’ direct cash assistance program

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(The Center Square) — After several other Virginia localities have started similar programs, a pilot guaranteed income program will be introduced in Loudoun County.

The county’s Board of Supervisors apportioned $2 million from the county’s anticipated fiscal year 2024 fund balance and voted to adopt a program in a 6-2-1 vote Thursday evening, with Chair Phyllis Randall, D-At-Large, and Supervisor Matt LeTourneau, R-Dulles, voting against it. Caleb Kershner, R-Catoctin, was absent.

The initial proposal was to use about $1.7 million from the county’s remaining American Rescue Plan Act COVID relief funds to support the program, but some board members wanted those funds to go toward the completion of a water tower project for the town of Round Hill – a conflict resolved in the alternative motion of Supervisor Koran Saines, D-Sterling.

“I believe this initiative is the right approach to help many of our families and individuals here in Loudoun County,” said Saines, who championed the program. “It will be like a steroid shot that can help them buy groceries, pay bills, pay down debt they may have… This could be monies they could put away for savings, or save up for a down payment for a house, [or] a down payment for a car.”

Small-scale pilot guaranteed income programs have been popping up nationwide with some regularity since 2019, according to Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, an organization founded as a national network for mayors who believe that “all Americans [should] have an income floor.” Then-Mayor of Stockton, California, Michael Tubbs, spearheaded the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, the first mayor-led guaranteed income program in the country, and later founded MFAGI.

The parameters of such pilot programs vary greatly. Some programs help 50 families, some help 100, and others focus on single mothers. But they all deliver a regular direct cash benefit to a very specifically defined subset of people meeting very particular eligibility criteria for a specified amount of time.

Though it has been suggested that Loudoun’s program targets families with an average median income of 30% or lower (about $46,000 for a family of four), who will likely be selected through a lottery process, most of the program’s parameters have yet to be determined—a fact that gave several on the board pause before voting Thursday.

During the board’s discussion of the proposal, LeTourneau voiced his concerns.

“I kind of think allocating the money before we’ve seen the program… is highly unusual for us and not something we’d typically do,” LeTourneau said. “I would probably prefer a more targeted approach to assistance, as we’ve been doing. For instance, rental assistance is something the county’s been providing regularly. Sure, money is money, but that way, it’s very clear on how it’s being used. I think using taxpayer dollars in this way does present questions.”

Since other Virginia localities have implemented similar programs, LeTourneau also thought it prudent to glean more information from them before starting one in Loudoun.

“This is a pilot program. There are other counties with pilot programs. We could see how those pilot programs actually work before we have to do it, since those parameters are already there and they’re far more mature than ours is,” LeTourneau said.

Of the other programs in Virginia, only Arlington’s Guarantee has completed its course; the rest are still ongoing.

Others were happy to approve the program, noting that it’s only a pilot and they see it as a worthwhile use of county funds.

“I understand Supervisor LeTourneau’s concern about using taxpayer dollars, which could easily be interpreted as a handout,” said Supervisor Michael Turner. “But again – emphasis on the fact this is a pilot program – we have homelessness, we have lower-income families in the county, and you use all the tools in the box when you’re in that kind of a situation.”

Turner argued that the pilot program is a new tool whose results can be studied, calling it a “great idea.”

Randall was less enthused.

“Obviously, I support economic mobility programs, but I’m not quite sure why we’ve an attached an amount to a program that we don’t even know what it looks like yet,” Randall said.

Like LeTourneau, she seemed skeptical of the less targeted nature of guaranteed income programs, which allow recipients to use the direct cash benefit however they see fit.

Saines’ motion included a directive that county staff return to the board with options for what a fully-fleshed-out program could look like by September.

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