One year into its pilot, Camp Harbor View’s guaranteed basic income program is working

By: Janelle Nanos

In August 2021, Camp Harbor View launched an experiment: Giving $583 a month to 50 lower-income families in Boston, no strings attached.

A year later, they’re already seeing the benefits. Recipients are making ends meet, paying down debt, and perhaps most significantly, reporting less stress and better overall mental health.

Camp Harbor View’s program is one of several pilots underway in Massachusetts right now that are experimenting with universal basic income. And while details of these experiments vary, they share a similar goal: Provide needy families with cash, to use as they see fit, on the grounds that families, not government, knows best how to meet their own needs.

“One of the unanticipated, and really exciting, benefits of this initiative has been seeing the positive impact it has had on the mental well-being and social and emotional well-being of these families,” saidCamp Harbor View executive director Lisa Fortenberry.

“It’s helping them feel like they have agency, like they are trusted, and like people believe in them.”

The program focuses on Black and Latino families, who have disproportionately borne the social and emotional impacts of the pandemic, Fortenberry said, and it stemmed from the Globe’s 2017 Spotlight investigation into racism in Boston, and the infamous statistic that the median net worth of black families in the city was just $8. The nonprofit hired consultants to help conceptualize the program, and ultimately determined that giving families in its network an additional $7,000 a year could have a significant impact.

Camp Harbor View selected 50 families from Boston who had taken part in its summer programming, and 50 others who would not receive the money, for comparison. Specifically, it targeted people who were not solely reliant on public benefit programs.

“We made a very active deliberate choice that we weren’t going to work with families that were below the federal poverty line,” Fortenberry said, not wanting to risk their eligibility for other federal subsidies like housing assistance or SNAP benefits.

This cohort, according to data analysts hired by Camp Harbor View, typically spent around $7,000 a year on food and utilities. With that amount of extra cash, “they had a higher and quicker probability of moving to a state where they would have disposable income,” Fortenberry explains.

“And so we thought, okay, that’s our sweet spot.”

Jack Connors, the longtime Boston advertising executive who founded Camp Harbor View loved the idea, and put $1 million from the nonprofit’s coffers into funding it.And in August of last year, the 50 families received a debit card with the cash. The bulk of the families live in Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park, and Roxbury, and the only requirement is that they set some financial goals for themselves. Most have said they wanted to reduce debt, or save for a home or for higher education. A team of three advisors work to support the families, providing workshops and case management opportunities as needed.

The results, so far, have been impressive. The organization found that families receiving the payments — compared with those who did not — are 40 percent less likely to have unmet household needs like child care, heating costs, or dental bills. Those receiving the funds also reported that they were better able to improve their credit scores, pay off debts, save more, or pay for things like higher education.

“Camp Harbor View’s guaranteed income pilot was designed to provide our families with a degree of household stability, and to allow us to measure the impact of predictable, unrestricted income,” Connors said in a statement.

“We are very pleased with the first year data that shows families feeling more up to date with their expenses, a greater sense of overall well-being and in many cases able to begin saving for the future.”

Fortenberry said one mother was able to use the money to pay for a training program that got her a promotion at her job. That, in turn, led her to quit her second job and spend more time with her kids. She also said families were saving the funds, and many respondents now said they had over a month’s worth of income saved for an emergency.

And 21 percent of the families said they their feelings of distress had been reduced by taking part in the program. They reported less anxiety and a greater sense of well-being.

“What I’m personally so excited about is the data that’s coming out of their study, which I think will be affirmed in other studies and some of the stories we’re hearing, is the stress reduction we’re seeing,” said Jessica Ridge, the East Cost partnership director for UpTogether, an nonprofit organization that’s currently overseeing 48 guaranteed income pilots nationally, including Camp Harbor View’s. “You can think about the ripple effect of that. You reduce stress and bring more joy and the possibilities for transformation become much greater.”

The program still has another year to run, but Fortenberry hopes the findings thus far will inspire private donors to fund more like it.

Long term, she says, she’s also hoping that Camp Harbor View can partner with local governments to help create some long-term sustainability for such guaranteed income programs, which are often subject to the shifting sands of politics. Now that they have some data in hand they can ask bigger questions, like how to scale these programs, and what’s the role of the public sector?

“This is not something that has to be sustained by an individual private organization,” she continued. “but we didn’t want to wait.”

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