For international refugees new to Minnesota, the struggle to get established is particularly hard these days, two years into the pandemic and amid soaring inflation.
"Coming to the United States as a refugee has so many challenges. People have been through so much trauma before they arrive in Minnesota," said International Institute of Minnesota Executive Director Jane Graupman, whose organization provides job training, language classes and immigration assistance for new Americans.
To help ease their burden, the institute worked with the city of St. Paul to launch one of the nation's first guaranteed income programs for refugees with Special Immigrant Visas or Humanitarian Parole. The pilot program will provide 25 families with $750 a month for one year.
The program enrolled households who have recently resettled in Minnesota and face challenges to employment. Much like St. Paul's People's Prosperity Guaranteed Income Pilot or the Springboard for the Arts guaranteed income program — both of which gave 150 families $500 a month for 18 months — the funds are given with no strings attached. Their purpose is to supplement rather than replace other forms of income.
The refugee program completed enrollment last month. Funded by private donations and grants from foundations, it will provide some stability as the refugees work to build a new life, Graupman said.
"It's great for people to have that psychological relief, to know that they have some income," she said.
Though critics' first reaction to the program may be that the organization is giving people money so they don't have to work, University of Illinois Chicago professor Kalen Flynn, who oversees the program, said critics need only look at the payment amounts.
The money is "not enough to not have to work, but it's certainly enough to increase someone's agency, and to help them make choices with the dignity of a human," Flynn said.
Refugees and immigrants begin working within months or even sooner when they arrive in the U.S., Graupman said. But guaranteed income can be a bridge, helping someone to get adjusted or learn English and return to a job similar to what they did in their former country.
The majority of participants are Afghan refugees, but the institute and city are also helping families from Ethiopia, Sudan, Guatemala, Eritrea, Burma and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though many families could use the assistance, the institute focused on refugee families with additional barriers, such as single-parent households with young children, those with physical or mental health challenges or those not yet allowed to work because of paperwork delays.
"I think that people were just very, very excited to be enrolled in the program. People just feel this sense of relief," Graupman said. "It lets people think about other possibilities that might improve their life — like working in a very entry level job at the beginning, building language skills, and then getting a higher-paying job."
Guaranteed income is having a major moment politically, locally and nationally, Flynn said. The Center for Guaranteed Income Research at the University of Pennsylvania has more than 50 pilot programs running across the country in cities of varying sizes.
Momentum for guaranteed income programs grew when some cities used federal COVID relief money to test the idea, said Flynn.
"I think that's really created this very cool moment for innovations in social policy, and guaranteed income is a piece of that puzzle," she said.
In the Springboard for the Arts program that Flynn also oversees, she has watched participants become more resilient since last June. Before, a car breakdown might have left a participant unable to put food on the table for a while. Now, an event like that is manageable.
Guaranteed income pilot program participants spend their payments on the same things as anyone else, said Muneer Karcher-Ramos, director of the Office of Financial Empowerment for the city of St. Paul.
"They spend it on rent, on food, on Target runs and getting the basic necessities of life. Some people talked about it as a life raft, particularly in the pandemic, and others who were able to enjoy things many people take for granted, such as a birthday cake or presents for children during the holidays," Karcher-Ramos said.
Basic income can gives families an opportunity to save money and avoid welfare, especially when refugee cash assistance — a federal and statewide health and human services program that provides cash assistance for refugees their first year in the U.S. — runs out, Karcher-Ramos said.
The sense of relief goes beyond the parents in a household, Graupman said — children feel more stable, too, after huge adjustments of being in a new country and school. The organization hopes to expand the program in the future so more families can experience the impact.