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This guaranteed income pilot gives low-income New York mothers $1,000 a month

A quarter of children under 3 in New York City live in poverty, a figure 10% higher than the national average. This program is looking at whether no-strings-attached cash can change that.

This guaranteed income pilot gives low-income New York mothers $1,000 a month
[Photo: Tom Ritson/Unsplash]

In November 2021, Angelina Matos, 18, quit her job and enrolled in school. With a new baby to care for, it would have been hard for her to imagine having that opportunity a few months ago. But in July, Matos started receiving $1,000 checks every month. That extra income allowed her to fulfill a goal of studying full time.

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Matos is one of 100 mothers chosen by the Bridge Project, New York City’s first consistent and at-scale guaranteed income pilot program. Funded entirely with private money, the program targets low-income new or expecting mothers of color. Now in its seventh month, the program already has shown its ability to support mothers, and is about to expand—but, the organizers say any further extensions will need government support.

In New York City, nearly a quarter of children under age 3 live in poverty, higher than the national average of about one in seven. For the Monarch Foundation, a private family foundation that is fully funding the pilot, a core area of focus is to alleviate child poverty and improve early development, especially in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. “We live in one of the richest countries in the world,” says Megha Agarwal, the executive director. “No baby should be going without food and shelter.” The trust turned to direct cash as a way to create swift impact.

Starting in July, 100 mothers started receiving either $500 or $1,000—randomly assigned to test the impact of the different dollar amounts—in three Upper Manhattan neighborhoods with high populations of BIPOC mothers: Inwood, Washington Heights, and Central Harlem. About half the recipients are Black and half Latino, and around one in five is undocumented. It’s open to all mothers, regardless of marital status or age, but they must live in households earning less than $52,000 annually.

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It’s the first guaranteed income pilot in New York City, other than a one-off Humanity Forward payout in 2020, when then-presidential candidate Andrew Yang distributed one-time payments to Bronx residents. Another pilot, Baby’s First Years, provides cash transfers as part of an ongoing scientific study on how poverty affects children’s brains, but also works in New Orleans, Omaha, and the Twin Cities. The Bridge Project focuses on New York City, and will be a key part of national evaluations of guaranteed income; like many pilot programs, it’s working with the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Guaranteed Income Research.

So far, the pilot’s data shows that mothers are spending on food and rent, but also on Ubers to hospital when a baby is sick, or a home washing machine so they don’t have to risk going to a laundromat with an unvaccinated baby. Mothers have been able to scale back from working two or three jobs, or to enroll in school, like Matos. “All the money goes to my daughter,” Matos says, saying she spends it on Pampers, clothes, formula, and toys. “If I have any leftover money, I’ll save, or I’ll help my mom out.” Crucially, this is not a flexibility that most government social programs allow. “They’ll say, this is money that you can use on this certain type of milk, and this certain size,” Agarwal says.

The foundation is launching a second phase of the pilot in April, selecting an additional 500 expectant mothers across the existing neighborhoods plus East Harlem and South and Central Bronx; both programs will last three years. It’ll need a total of $16 million, all coming from the foundation’s repository. While that works for a pilot, it’s not a sustainable solution for carrying on these supplemental incomes further into the future. “The only way to adequately scale up a program like this is through government investment,” Agarwal says. “Our private dollars can only go so far.”

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The organizers hope to convince Mayor Eric Adams’ new administration to work with them and add additional financing, which would also allow the program to join the Mayors For a Guaranteed Income alliance, a collective of city leaders who are experimenting with the policy. As it stands, New York is one of the biggest cities in the country not yet part of the partnership, which includes Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. Being a member would bring them valuable support and know-how.

And governmental funding would greatly widen impact opportunities for young children and parents. “The current investments in this country just show that we are not valuing mothers and babies,” Agarwal says. “I think we need to start really questioning what kind of country we want to live in.”

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