On: April 24, 2023

It is easy today to lean into frustration. We face immense problems: a mental health crisis among young people, the steady march of global climate change, and deteriorating trust in election results. And there is a case to be made that Americans are more divided than at any time in recent memory

Shooting Darts

In the face of serious problems, it seems we’ve forgotten what collective action looks like. As Jonathan Haidt wrote in 2022 in The Atlantic

“Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous… from 2009 to 2012,  Facebook and Twitter passed out roughly 1 billion [social] dart guns globally. We’ve been shooting one another ever since.”

As Haidt makes clear, social media often rewards corrosive rather than constructive cultural forces. Algorithmic incentives drive people – including our most influential leaders – to be less reasonable, less patient, more aggressive versions of themselves. Even for people who don’t participate directly in the internet battle royal, it is hard to escape the thought that Americans increasingly lack confidence in each other. Our sense of shared trust is wounded.    

A Familiar Challenge

Trust is an important ingredient in the success of any nonprofit organization, government social program, or community initiative. And for people who support the idea of providing vulnerable families with monthly cash payments, trust is essential. Here, the internet “dart gun” battle of the last decade has added to a familiar, entrenched barrier to progress: a lot of folks don’t trust poor people with money.

This deficit of trust (which is anything but new) surfaced during a decisive moment in the 2021-22 congressional budget negotiations. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) joined 50 Republican senators in blocking the extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit (“CTC”) – a $250 to $300 per month, per child, payment to middle and low-income families. It was reported at the time that Manchin expressed concern that parents would use monthly CTC payments to buy drugs

In its short life, the CTC contributed to an estimated 46% decline in child poverty between 2020 and 2021. Other studies have found evidence of a significant CTC role in reducing material hardship and food insecurity for millions of children. While CTC impact data is fundamental to the argument against Manchin’s (and many others’) lack of trust in low-income parents, individual stories about how real people used the cash might be equally powerful. As the New York Times reported in November 2022:

Thomas Horton: “While most of the aid went to bills, Mr. Horton cited… breaks from frugal norms… [including] the family’s first vacation — a single night in a state park, where they pitched a borrowed tent and made s’mores. ‘I saw a happiness in my wife and kids I hadn’t seen in a long time,’ he said. ‘I felt like father of the year.’…

Louwanda Douglas: “Before the program, Ms. Douglas [a nursing aid] worked a second job as a night janitor to send her daughters — Londyn, 12, and Leslie, 7 — to cheerleading classes. With $500 a month from the tax credit expansion, she quit the night job and took the girls to practices. ‘My kids always want me to be there — they looked so happy,’ she said. When the payments from the tax credit ended, Ms. Douglas continued to work one job (to spend time with an ailing mother)and Londyn left the class in part because of the cost.”

A growing body of data shows that parents spent the majority of expanded CTC funds on food, utilities, and clothing. To the extent that monthly payments afforded some financial breathing room, parents used the cash for child school expenses, to pay down debt, for child after school activities, and for shared family experiences.

The Case for Optimism

We can throw our hands up at the shameful political failure that ended the expanded CTC. But in the face of roadblocks to progress – both new and old – Family Health Project (FHP) is making a case for optimism.

Here, optimism sits at the intersection of resolve and action. It’s not passive or wishful thinking. Instead, we’re doing the work of building a simple, scalable cash transfer programs embedded in community health centers, starting in Lynn and Roxbury, Massachusetts. And in looking around the country, we see positive things happening below the surface of political controversies and internet “dart gun” fights. For advocates of basic income programs, the ground is shifting quietly in our favor. Progress is not linear; it moves in fits and starts. But it’s happening. 

The expanded CTC leaves an important legacy. There is now a critical opportunity to evaluate pre-CTC-expansion, expansion-period, and post-expansion measures of family health and wellbeing. Researchers are studying what amounts to a massive national experiment in trusting parents to use unconditional cash payments to benefit their families. So far, studies published by the US Census Bureau, Journal of the American Medical Association, Health Affairs, and others, have found evidence that CTC cash payments significantly reduced hunger and hardship for children while also reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety for parents.  

In communities across the country, nonprofit organizations and local governments are implementing and studying programs that unleash the power of unconditional cash transfers. These programs have different designs and will lead to a variety of successes, failures, and learnings. We’ve modeled FHP after Baby’s First Years (BFY) – a university-led research initiative in Minneapolis, New York, New Orleans, and Omaha. BFY is studying the impact of unconditional cash payments to new mothers on their children’s brain development. 1,000 mothers receive monthly payments of either $333 or $20 for the first 52 months of their child’s life. BFY published preliminary findings in early 2022: cash payments to mothers in the first year of their children’s lives appear to change the babies’ brain activity in ways associated with stronger cognitive development. The study remains ongoing.   

Based on mounting evidence, we are learning that each dollar invested in a family today changes the trajectory of that family. We are growing more confident that investments in the wellbeing of our neighbors’ children will bring lasting benefits to all of us. With data on hand, we believe parents know best how to use cash to benefit their children – and we are demonstrating the humility and trust required to get out of their way. 

It is easy to lean into frustration. But today’s children are tomorrow’s citizens and problem-solvers. They live in Lynn, and Roxbury, and in your community. If we can do our level best to give families some breathing room (cash) today, we will strengthen America’s collective capacity to face tomorrow’s challenges – from mental health to climate change to social trust.  

We choose optimism today because Family Health Project and BFY are planting the seeds of structural shifts in both philanthropy and public policy. We choose optimism because institutions including Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and others, are conducting rigorous studies on how unconditional cash benefit programs impact child health and cognitive development. We choose optimism not as a shallow source of comfort but as a pressing responsibility – a responsibility to raise our expectations for the effectiveness of charitable organizations and the positions of policymakers.

Ours is an optimism that places trust in the future because we are doing the work today.