Cambridge’s successful COVID experiment at giving poor families $500 month will continue, and grow from 130 to to 2,000 people

By Janelle Nanos

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For years, Mabell Acevedo struggled each month to make ends meet. As a single mom, she needed to cover the rent and food costs for her and her son, then try and pay down student loan debt too. The math was nearly impossible.

“Single moms, we have too much,” she said. “It’s hard, it gives you a lot of stress. You see your kids and you want to give them better.”

But in September 2021, Acevedo got a massive leg up: She was selected to enroll in a pilot program launched by the city of Cambridge to support single parents, by giving them $500 a month, no strings attached.

For Acevedo, it was a lifeline. And for the 18 months she received the funds, she was able to pay down her loan debt, navigate to a new, higher-paying job at Harvard University Health Services, and even start saving for her 13-year-old son’s college education. And she was able to help her mother move from Peru to live with her in Cambridge.

“It helped me to get on track,” she said.

Now, after that successful pilot with 130 single parents, Cambridge is expanding its Rise Upguaranteed income program to help needy families throughout the city — an estimated 2,000 households. On Tuesday, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui joined local lawmakers for the program’s launch, noting it will be one of the largest experiments of its kind in the country.

“We’ve heard from families about the impact of the funds and how effective they’ve been to allow them to not go deeper into poverty,” Siddiqui said.

“For me, providing a guaranteed income is showing low-income families we believe in them and know they can succeed if we give them the tools.”

The $22 million effort is being financed through American Rescue Plan Act funds, in partnership among the mayors office, the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee, and the Cambridge Community Foundation. This round will be distributed not only to single parents, but also to all households in Cambridge with children under the age of 21 earning at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($75,000 for a family of four). The estimated 2,000 families amount to roughly 4 percent of all households in the city.

Siddiqui said she was thrilled to see the outcomes from the pilot program, and it motivated her to push to distribute stipends citywide. That expansion is a major milestone for the guaranteed income movement, which have caught fire in economic circles since COVID, said Siddiqui, as most efforts piloted elsewhere in the country have been distributed using lottery systems. In working to reach every family in the city that fits the income threshold, Siddiqui believes Cambridge’s plan is the first nonlottery program in the country to offer support to all families that qualify.

Applications for Rise Up will open June 1, and the city is partnering with over a dozen local nonprofits to spread the word, said Tina Alu, Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee’s executive director. In the coming weeks, she said volunteers will be visiting schools, churches, and affordable housing developments to help people enroll on the spot. They have a team that can provide assistance in seven languages, Alu said, and have been getting the message out the program is open to any Cambridge resident that fits the income requirements, regardless of immigration status.

So far, the hardest part has been convincing people it’s not a lottery this time, Alu said. “We keep repeating that message over and over so that people get it.”

Rise Up is one of a half-dozen efforts in Massachusetts experimenting with providing guaranteed income distributions to needy families. Other programs have been launched in communities like Chelsea, which handed out $400 a month to 2,000 families during the depths of the pandemic. The city reupped its effort this winter, using $800,000 in ARPA funds to help 650 families cover food and heating costs.

Camp Harbor View has also been running a pilot program, handing out $583 a month to 50 families in its network. Early analysis of that pilot found that those in the program reported lower stress and better mental health in addition to greater financial stability.

Other smaller pilots have also been underway elsewhere in the state, and earlier this year Somerville announced plans to use $2.5 million in ARPA funds for its own guaranteed income plan. “It’s a historic opportunity with the ARPA money that could fund a program that could help residents in unprecedented ways,” Mayor Katjana Ballantyne of Somerville said at the time of the announcement.

With its size and policy bent, “Massachusetts is such an ideal laboratory” for guaranteed income programs, said Amy Castro, who leads the Center for Guaranteed Income Research at the University of Pennsylvania. She said she’s been paying close attention to the programs here and how they’re learning from each other. Massachusetts is a perfect place, she said, “to experiment with cash.”

And that cash can make a real difference in people’s lives, said Alu. “Five hundred dollars for a lot of people is nothing,” she said. “But for the families that we work with it’s like a windfall.”

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