City council members

With city council members tuning in virtually, Phoenix city staff outlined their recommendations for the debit cards to needy families—a proposal approved in a 7-2 vote. 

Phoenix officials have allocated $12 million for distribution to needy families, likely through some form of debit card that will be good for $500 to $1,000 a month for 12 months.

The plan, approved by city council last month, would be aimed at aiding households that applied for Phoenix’s rental assistance plan and those living in city-owned housing or who have Section 8 rental assistance vouchers – though the final selection of recipients will likely be done through a lottery of some kind.

The program is funded by some of the city’s share of American Relief Plan Act money and would begin by January.

Vice Mayor Carlos Garcia said he was “really excited” about the program.

“I think this is definitely something we need,” Garcia said. “We see in a lot of cities across the country doing this direct assistance. I’m glad that we would be joining them and giving money directly to folks – that it’s not just for rent or utilities. But if they do have child care needs, if they have to get medicine, whatever it is. I think people know better than us about what their needs are.”

Phoenix administration told council in a memo that other cities have used their third round of federal pandemic relief funding in similar ways.

“Many cities are planning to use ARPA funding to provide a fixed monthly amount to qualified residents to provide a greater financial stability and improve quality of life in their communities,” the memo said.

It cited as examples Los Angeles County, which is spending $16.3 million on a guaranteed income pilot program for a minimum of 1,000 residents for up to $1,000 a month for three years. It also cited Chicago, where 5,000 residents will receive $500 a month for a year through at least $12 million in ARPA funds.

“Participants will receive monthly funds via a debit card and will be able to purchase items with a few limitations, such as no alcohol, tobacco, or lottery ticket purchases,” the memo said. “The card will be declined for such purchases.”

While the city memo noted that recipients “must agree to allow general purchasing information to be shared with the city to track and report on the progress of the program as encouraged by the US Treasury,” Councilman Sal DiCiccio criticized the absence of any job-seeking requirement.

He said he liked the idea of getting relief money directly to people instead of growing a government program

“They have to be inclined to go get a job,” DiCiccio said. “They have to be out there looking, searching for.”

Noting employers are desperately trying to fill thousands of positions across most industries, DiCiccio said the program needed requirements that recipients prove they are looking for work.

“The $1,000 a month represents about $6.25 an hour to any individual that’s working,” he said. “So if they’re working and getting $10 an hour, they’re really making 16 dollars an hour and I think the $1,000 is also tax-free.”

“If we could put some sort of requirements like that in there, which kind of allows us to be able to monitor their progress, allows us to expand it out and that also allows us to get some sort of expectation, otherwise it just becomes a handout,” DiCiccio said.

“It just becomes a giveaway, and you don’t want to do that. You want to have some expectations in there, where individuals would have to go out there and find a job. They have to show proof of it. They have to show that they’re actually diligently doing that.”

But DiCiccio’s remarks fell on deaf ears at the meeting: neither his colleagues nor staff even responded to his remarks.

City spokeswoman Stephanie Barnes said, “Now that funding has been approved, city staff can begin the process of creating the program rules, procedures and safeguards, which will be addressed in the coming weeks.”

At the same meeting, council approved a “workforce wraparound tuition/apprentice program” to provide job training.

Council previously approved $10 million for that program and now approved using $8.5 million of that “to offer free training and education to residents who have been impacted by the pandemic in the hardest-hit industries of hospitality, food service, retail and families with young children.”

The city administration called that a “two-generation approach” that covers low-income families and children from the same households “and combines parent and child interventions that improve economic mobility.”

“For families with young children and participants who are not enrolled at a Maricopa County Community College, staff recommends allocating $1.5 million of program funds to partner with a community-based organization to expand the existing suite of workforce services.”

Participants in a community college or a city-approved job training service would get $1,000 a month for six months and an additional $500 if they needed child care.

But Mayor Kate Gallego worried that the six-month stipend cap “may not be enough for everyone.”

She said the stipend portion of the program needs to be more flexible “when we’re talking about taking people from retail to jobs in cyber security or advanced manufacturing.”

Training would be geared to prepare candidates for jobs in bioscience and health care, financial services/customer contact centers, information technology/cybersecurity, manufacturing, and construction, but it would also include “skill and career assessments, high school equivalency preparation, English language learning programs and education and workforce navigation services, such as case management and work readiness training,” according to a city memo.

Gallego said the program was rightfully targeted at families with children.

“We can get the biggest bang for our buck for focusing on children,” the mayor said. “If we make investments in multi-generational families, it will help both the person who’s working as well as their kids. That’s really meaningful to me. We want to make it easier for the kids out there.”