NYC Guaranteed Income Program Goes From Pilot to Permanent

By: Sarah Holder

See original post here.

A monthly cash payment program for new mothers in New York is going from pilot project to permanent program, as the city debates using public dollars to fuel guaranteed income initiatives. 

The Bridge Project, which launched in 2021 through the Monarch Foundation, started as a temporary program that gave monthly debit cards to pregnant mothers in northern Manhattan neighborhoods, hoping to test the benefits of no-strings-attached cash on the first three years of a baby’s life.

In the coming months, the program will open to mothers in Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens — as well as the upstate city of Rochester, New York. Participants receive $1,000 a month for 18 months, and then $500 a month for another 18 months after that.

Local guaranteed income pilots like the Bridge Project, which give out direct payments without conditions like work requirements, gained popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic. Led by mayors, county leaders and nonprofits, the initiatives put forth both immediate and longer-term goals: to address economic inequality and racial disparities in their own regions, to break down stigmas about poverty, and to establish political will for a national guaranteed income program. Most of the pilots thus far have lasted only a few years, and focused on generating research on the effects of consistent cash on particularly vulnerable populations. 

As the Bridge Project recruits a new cohort of mothers to receive benefits, it is transitioning from a piloting-and-research phase into a more permanent one, says Megha Agarwal, the executive director of the Monarch Foundation and of the Bridge Project, which she co-founded. While there’s no assurance that the funding won’t end, it’s the first guaranteed income program in the country to make a commitment to continue indefinitely. The first three phases cost more than $32 million for 1,100 participants. 

As pilots around the country wrap up and release information about their local impacts, Agarwal hopes cities start treating guaranteed income not as an experiment, but as a key part of their social services infrastructure. “My hope is that over time we move away from the piloting approach and recognize that once we have a lot of data in our hands, a lot of stories in our hands, we’re able to make the argument that something like this should be taken up by our public dollars,” she said. 

While several US guaranteed income programs incorporate some government funds, the Bridge Project relies entirely on philanthropic funding from the Monarch Foundation.

But that could change soon. In her state of the city speech, New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams proposed spending $5 million in next year’s budget to support existing guaranteed income programs, including the Bridge Project. Mayor Eric Adams did not include that figure in his executive budget, but the speaker’s office says the investment is a priority as budget negotiations continue. The city council is also working on introducing legislation that a spokesperson says would provide a framework for city government to support cash assistance programs, including ones potentially run through the city itself. 

And New York State lawmakers are sponsoring their own legislation, introduced in February, that would “provide income to eligible participants for the last three months of pregnancy and the first 18 months of the child’s life.” 

Birmania Tavarez, a mother of two, started receiving $1,000 a month from the Bridge Project last July. Not eligible for food stamps because of her slightly-too-high income from a job at a jewelry manufacturer, but still struggling to get by as a single mom, the cash helped cover essentials other assistance programs did not. Together with her two sons, now four years and nine months old, she was able to move into a bigger apartment where the kids can share their own room instead of bunking with her. As Tavarez works towards a degree in geology, she’s slowly saving money and also getting entrepreneurship coaching through the Bridge Project to start her own business. “I’m making a plan for later on,” she said. “I’m trying to do my own thing because I want to have more hours with [my kids].”

Many stories like this have come out of both the local guaranteed income pilots and federal pandemic-era programs. They accompany data from several of these initiatives that Agarwal believes provide more than enough evidence on the value of cash transfers. 

“The simple question of: Could this actually alleviate child poverty? Could it lead towards better outcomes for children? The answer is very clearly, yes,” she said. “I think what that leads us to then ask now is, how does cash work? When does cash work? What does the cash actually look like?”

The temporary federal expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which sent American families up to $300 a month per kid for six months of the pandemic, lifted an estimated 2.9 million children out of poverty in 2021, and had cut the child poverty rate by an estimated 30% after the last payment was disbursed.

The broader suite of Covid stimulus checks, including the CTC, cut the child poverty rate in New York City by 68% in 2021, according to the annual Poverty Tracker report released by the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University and Robin Hood. An effort to expand the Child Tax Credit permanently at the federal level failed last year. 

Other research around guaranteed income has focused on employment, as critics have expressed concern that these programs will encourage people to exit the workforce. Some studies have quelled those concerns: In the first phase of Stockton, California’s two-year guaranteed income program, the rate of full-time employment of recipients jumped 12 percentage points in the first year. And an economic study on the Alaska Permanent Fund, which disburses part of the state’s oil revenues to Alaskans each year, found no significant impacts on employment.

Because the pilots are by nature small and targeted, not all research has been conclusive. By the end of Stockton’s two-year experiment, the pandemic had started and response rates to research questions plummeted. The cash payments’ effect on employment during the pandemic were not considered statistically significant.

Although the Bridge Project is moving out of the pilot phase, it isn’t abandoning research. It’s bringing in its own in-house research team to pursue further questions around cash’s effects on things like maternal health outcomes, family stability, early childhood outcomes, and breastfeeding and nutrition.

Previous analyses have shown that participating mothers were able to access child care at higher rates and save more money. Their findings have also had influence on the design of the program, which initially gave half the chosen mothers monthly payments of just $500, until they realized $500 wasn’t enough to help mothers “thrive,” said Agarwal. “It certainly will help you survive, it certainly will help create more breathing room and more space to feel like you can show up as a caregiver in the way that you want to,” she said. “But it might not actually allow you enough breathing room to think about the implications of tomorrow.” Now all women get $1,000 a month for 18 months, before dropping to $500. 

While the program is ongoing, cash support for individual mothers is not. The idea is to give mothers enough of a runway to make their baby’s first 1,000 days a little easier – an intervention that advocates hope will translate into long-term stability. 

Kassandra Hernandez, who has two young sons, is dreading that end date, and she says the anxiety that the $1,000 a month quelled is coming back as she thinks about making ends meet without it next July. Her baby’s daycare costs $500 a month, and her apartment, which she shares with her grandmother, costs another $1,120 monthly. Those expenses won’t disappear when the debit cards do – nor will her desire to bring her kids to the museum and the zoo, activities the cash made easier to pursue. 

Still, Hernandez, who works part-time in medical billing, says the flexibility of the program has helped her juggle her needs as a Type 1 diabetic and the needs of her family in a way she wasn’t able to when she had her first child. “With my oldest one, I did not have this help at all,” she said. “Had I had the help, though, I feel like that would have been a big, big difference in his life and my life.”

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