For antipoverty advocates, it’s a tantalizing idea: provide Boston’s poorest residents with no-strings-attached cash to make ends meet.
With Boston officials recently acknowledging they are discussing a guaranteed basic income program, they won’t have to look far to see how test runs of the idea have fared. Officials in Chelsea and Cambridge report that their pilots were effective in helping low-income households.
But even in locales where the pilot programs are popular, the cost has raised questions about their future. Officials in Cambridge and Chelsea admit they are not sure how to fund longer-term guaranteed basic income initiatives. For example, one round of a program in Chelsea cost $7 million over nine months; another in Cambridge has $22 million allocated for a year-and-a-half-long period.
“At the end of the day it’s all who is paying for these programs,” said Lourdes Alvarez, Chelsea’s communications and outreach manager. “These programs are very, very expensive.”
Cambridge City Councilor Marc McGovern was equally blunt about whether money is available for Rise Up, the program that provides certain Cambridge households with $500 a month.
“I don’t think we have an answer to that right now,” he said. “The big hope is that the proof of concept and the information is being gathered and we can prove that this is actually something that works and you hope that federal and state funding comes along with that.”
Even with those unknowns, Chelsea and Cambridge may hold lessons for Boston, which has 121,000 residents living in poverty, with some lawmakers urging the city to take a long look at a temporary program.
Under the Chelsea Eats program, families whose households fell within 30 percent of area median income, which is $44,500 annually for a four-person household, qualified for a lottery to receive $200 to $400 a month that they could use for staples such as food, diapers, baby formula, or utility bills.
During the first round, launched in 2021, more than 2,000 city residents received money from a pool of $7 million, funded with a mix of private and city money, over a nine-month period. A household of three people or more would receive $400 a month, a family of two would receive $300, and a single person would receive $200.
”It became very popular — all the recipients were actually very grateful,” said Alvarez.
Earlier this year, there was a second round of the program, which was much smaller. A pool of $600,000 was distributed to 500 recipients over three months.
In a city with a significant immigrant population, many undocumented immigrants do not qualify for food stamps or unemployment, said Alvarez. However, they were eligible for the lottery.
“Chelsea Eats was for many the only economic assistance they could have,” she said.
But it looks doubtful that there will be a third round of the program, at least anytime soon. Alvarez said she was “not aware of any fund-raising efforts that will happen again in the near future.”
There are similar open questions in Cambridge. Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said authorities “are still exploring ways to continue the program after 2025 and make it a permanent part of our city’s antipoverty strategy.”
The Rise Up program provided families earning at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $75,000 for a household of four, with $500 per month for 18 months. When it was announced in June, the $22 million program was the only city-wide cash assistance program of its kind in the country, according to Cambridge officials. It was funded through the federal stimulus package, often referred to as the American Rescue Plan Act.
More than 3,200 applications were submitted for the program. So far, 1,920 households have been approved and are receiving the $500 monthly payments.
“We are finding that a basic income floor is an effective way to empower and stabilize families, and while we are still studying the long term impacts, we feel confident in this tool as part of our plan to reduce poverty and address the growing economic divide in our city,” said Siddiqui in a statement.
Residents used the money to climb out of debt, pay back-rent, return to school, and fund child care so parents could work more, according to officials.
“It’s really hard to worry about every dollar you’re spending,” said McGovern. “To have a little bit of cushion . . . is something these families haven’t experienced. That stuff is really important for people’s mental health.”
Camp Harbor View, a private organization that is focused on providing opportunities to Boston’s most marginalized, just completed a pilot program for guaranteed basic income in September.
The initiative was born out of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as an often cited study that found the median net worth for non-immigrant Black households in the Greater Boston region is just $8, according to Josh Waxman, the chief operating officer for Camp Harbor View.
Waxman said his organization hired consultants, performed more than a dozen focus groups, and surveyed hundreds. They found that families consistently reported having a lack of access to unrestricted cash.
“They had been caught in so many programs and so many systems that had so much red tape involved, but if they just had a little extra money each month, they could really do some meaningful things to move their families forward,” he said.
His group’s program targeted families just above the poverty line. Fifty families that were making between $43,000 and $103,000 a year were given $585 a month, no strings attached.
During a Boston City Council hearing this week, Segun Idowu, Boston’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, said any guaranteed income program would need to include private, philanthropic partners. On Wednesday, Waxman said his organization would “absolutely” be interested in developing a program with the city.
“We’ve had initial conversations with them,” he said.
Still, in Boston, the discussion of a guaranteed basic income appears to be in its infancy. Mayor Michelle Wu said Wednesday that the city is not “at the point of considering details.”
Some city lawmakers oppose a guaranteed income program. City Council President Ed Flynn said Thursday that coming out of the pandemic, “there is still a great deal of economic uncertainty,” including vacant commercial space and high interest rates.
“It is important that we focus on our existing responsibilities, prioritize basic city services and public safety, and increase salaries to attract talent and retain our dedicated employees in one of the most difficult housing markets in the country,” he said.
Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based free market think tank, said in an email that the impact of universal basic income programs, both domestically and abroad, is “hard to gauge.”
“Results varied, with improvements in well-being but mixed results on employment and poverty alleviation,” he said.
Speaking at a news conference this week, Wu was straightforward about the challenges of launching and maintaining a guaranteed basic income initiative.
“At the city level, it’s very hard for any municipality to have the scale of funding available to make a difference across the entire population,” she said. “Every other city that has done this, it’s been a very limited pilot of a small number of families for a set period of time and that just kind of dries up and goes away.”