On: January 4, 2022

Another 15 women are set to receive $400 a month for three years 

The ball is rolling. In November, Family Health Project began giving another 15 low-income new mothers $400 a month for three years. That makes 30 women in total, and it signals the start of a potentially new—and better—way to support those in need and give kids a strong and healthy start.

It’s new because the program gives cash with no strings attached, unheard of in social welfare programs. It’s better because it’s streamlined with no red tape to entangle either the social service providers or the women receiving the money. And most importantly, it’s a better way to support families because it trusts the mothers to know what their kids need most.

The approach of giving cash is so novel that Christine Pajarillo, vice president of programs and social services at Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury, Mass., which is identifying the 15 women for enrollment, didn’t believe it was true.

“I kept on asking, what’s the catch, what do we have to do, because it’s so different from other grant funding,” she said. Funders typically want reports, data, and stats, she said, and while that’s important for tracking how the money is being spent, the Family Health Project “is really trusting the women to spend the money and believing that $400 will improve their life, period.”

In the Roxbury community in Boston, Whittier Street Health Center is a trusted provider where neighbors go for more than a check-up. There they can find a warm coat, a food bank, a community garden, and many more supports, including doctors and nurses who look like them and speak their language—all of which builds trust among families who have little reason to trust health care or other large systems.

The patient population at Whittier is primarily women of color, immigrant-heavy, and with many languages spoken. For many residents, access to health care is a high hurdle. Thirty percent are uninsured and 92 percent live in deep poverty (below <200 percent of the official poverty threshold). Eight in ten are in public housing. The $400 a month is life-changing.

“This is a true blessing,” Pajarillo said of the money. “They can pay for diapers, pay rent, or whatever is needed. We say $400 will be life-changing and that’s what we anticipate.”

Family Health Project is joining roughly 50 other programs across the country taking this approach–though all are still in the proving-ground stage. Family Health Project is bypassing the testing given the already decades of research showing the impact of more income on children. Currently, at roughly 50 guaranteed income experiments are either up and running or about to launch in the U.S. They span 20 states and they’re giving out between $300 and $1200 monthly to families for one to three years. Many are partially funded by the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income initiative, which was started by Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, and led by former Stockton mayor Michael Tubbs. MGI gives participating mayors $500,000 to jumpstart their pilot programs. Stockton, Calif., was the first major test of a guaranteed income in the country—and proved remarkably successful. Another 23 mayors have said they may launch such pilots in the coming year or so.

The federal government’s expanded and reformed Child Tax Credit is another example of a guaranteed income program. Spurred by COVID-19’s economic fallout, the CTC gives roughly $300 a month per child to 36 million American families. The first deposits began appearing in bank accounts over the summer and ended Dec 31, 2021 unless Congress extends the funding as part of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better spending bill. The National Academies estimate that the revised credit can cut the child poverty rate nearly in half, lifting 4 million children out of poverty. Critically, the newly expanded program reaches the lowest income families, which the original tax credit omitted because they earned too little to file taxes. That earlier version missed 70 percent of children of single mothers.

The advantages of cash are many. Cash allows families to pay for what they need when they need it, like the Oakland, Calif., man with a developmental disability who needed a clean uniform to get to work but had no access to a washing machine. He was fired as a result.

“There is no government program that buys you a washing machine when you need it,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf told a virtual audience tuning in to hear about Oakland’s guaranteed income project. “But that’s what this family needed to be self-sufficient right then. That’s the kind of dignity that our current array of multiple safety net programs that are so targeted don’t address,” she said.

Even philanthropic gift cards come with some strings, Whittier’s Pajarillo said. A recent donation of gift cards to Street Health Center by a local grocer was enormously generous, she said, but it also required that recipients spend at least $25 at that grocery store, a store that was two bus rides away, too far for the low-income seniors who received the gift card.

“Sadly, that’s the reality, said Pajarillo. “We can’t give cash out because we don’t have it, but that’s the answer when meeting people’s needs–it’s a $5 voucher to get on the train.”

As with each site in the Family Health Project, the overhead is minimal and the system is streamlined. No new staff are needed as the program simply gives the obstetricians at the health clinics a five-minute set of screening questions to ask potential participants, all of whom are in their third trimester of pregnancy. The $400 is deposited on a debit card, which caseworkers at the original site in Gloucester, Mass., oversee. And caseworkers there also help the new moms connect to other existing services available to them, from job training to child care. The program, in other words, plugs into existing systems instead of creating a brand new, and costly, system.

As the Family Health Project’s first year comes to a close, we’re proud to have been able to help 30 new families see their kids get off to a healthy start. We couldn’t have done it without the generous support of extremely generous people, and we will continue to build on the groundswell of that investment. There is much work ahead as we continue to tweak the model while learning what works best for these mothers and their children. We look forward to 2022.