Thursday, June 13, 2024

Lida Griffin gets a hug from U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley on Tuesday at Cambridge City Hall at the announcement of a Rise Up guaranteed-income program. The Cambridge Community Foundation’s Geeta Pradhan is at left. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A guaranteed-income program tried by Cambridge two years ago, in which 130 single-caretaker households got $500 no-strings-attached monthly payments, clearly passed the test. On Tuesday, city leaders announced a new, 18-month round of $500 direct payments to families funded with $22 million – a dramatic increase from the $1.5 million in the program in 2021.

Though that effort was based on a model begun in California that became a national initiative called Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, the new Rise Up Cambridge: Cash Payments for Families with Kids was called Tuesday the only citywide cash assistance program of its kind in the country.

That’s made it “a great day to be in Cambridge,” visiting U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley said.

Applications open June 1 and stay open until July 31. Rolling payments begin at the end of June.

The new initiative was presented in a noon press conference at City Hall by Pressley with Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and City Manager Yi-An Huang, as well as two partners: the Cambridge Community Foundation, represented by president Geeta Pradhan, and the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee, represented by Tina Alu. Also speaking was Victor Gutierrez and Lida Griffin, participants in the 2021 test of the Recurring Income for Success and Empowerment program.

Speakers at Tuesday’s announcement of Rise Up Cambridge: Cash Payments for Families with Kids. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The new program gives cash to low-income Cambridge households with children 21 or younger and earning at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. A city analysis shows there are 2,000 families in Cambridge eligible for the payments, totaling some 7,000 people in a city of 120,000. Eligibility looks at a ratio of family size to income that ranges from a family of two with household income of $49,300 to a family of five living on $87,850.

The rules for inclusion are another expansion from the 2021 test, in which participants were chosen by lottery.

“This is what government should be doing,” said Siddiqui, whose office led the programs. 

Rise Up Cambridge got a major boost in funding through federal Covid-recovery money in the American Rescue Plan Act. The City Council voted in March 2022 to direct Arpa money toward expanding the 2021 test, Siddiqui said.

Most cities are using Arpa money for infrastructure, “but our city actually chose to use it for infrastructure for supporting the nonprofit sector, as well as supporting families – in fact, 25 percent of the city’s allocation,” Pradhan said. 

What $500 a month buys

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui speaks Tuesday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Findings from earlier direct-payment programs show that recipients use the income largely on food, housing, transportation and utilities, Pressley said, though Gutierrez and Griffin said that their 18 months in the program for single parents made room for things even after paying the bills and such things as car maintenance: Gutierrez was able to put a child in camp; Griffin got to try camping herself for the first time.

The participants’ stories were emotional. At one point, Griffin was handed a tissue, and when she stepped away from the lectern, Pressley hugged her. They held hands while Siddiqui spoke, up until the moment Pressley replaced the mayor at the microphone.

It’s been “considered to be very radical, and a fringe idea, to empower people with the self-agency and dignity to make their own choices,” Pressley said. “Just sit with that for a moment.”

Poor people live with stigma, but “it is not a moral failing, it’s not a character flaw to be poor. The failing is that people are poor in the richest nation in the country,” Pressley said, recounting how she volunteered that day at a soup kitchen in her 7th congressional district, which stretches from Revere to Randolph and includes much of Boston. In line, “it was overwhelmingly our elders on fixed incomes, who were pushing broken shopping carts and whose backs were bent. And they were going to have to take two or three buses to get back home. What an outrage for people in the twilight of their lives.”

Two Cambridges

According to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, it costs $130,740 for a household with two parents and two children to live in Cambridge, while the federal poverty level for the same household is $13,000, Pradhan said. 

The problem is not new, “but it’s become worse,” Pradhan said. “For a city as wealthy as Cambridge, there is no reason why we should have poverty in our community – no reason why 1 in 8 people should go hungry.”

Families such as those eligible for Rise Up Cambridge have been told that “if they work hard and play by the rules, they will succeed. But many of our families work two and three jobs and are still struggling,” said Alu, who said her work with the CEOC confronts her daily with Cambridge’s tale of two cities.

In a recent survey, more than 87 percent of CEOC clients said that they don’t have $400 in emergency savings. “That’s not okay,” Alu said. “And as the high cost of food, gasoline and other expenses continue to grow, the number of people using our food pantry has skyrocketed. We needed to open a second food pantry site in North Cambridge. This is especially true for our black and brown families – there’s often a sense of hopelessness, a feeling that they’ll never be able to move out of poverty and have economic stability.”

What’s next

After the Rise Up Cambridge funding ends comes the question of what’s next, the speakers said, and how longer-term programs can be built. Many were working on an answer, Pradhan said.

Huang said he’d been following the cash transfer movement for the past 15 years and appreciated taking part in “a small step toward creating a more just economic system – but an important step.” 

“There is deep dignity to giving people the choice and power to decide what they need,” Huang said, and this 18-month program of Rise Up Cambridge “is not the end of the conversation.”

This post was updated May 4 to specify that federal grant discussions among city councillors referred to by Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui were in 2022.