Five Hundred Reasons for $500

A new guaranteed income in Cambridge, Mass., is offering direct cash to low-income households with children. The program could be a model for the rest of the U.S.

Since my immigrant parents worked multiple low-wage jobs to care for my twin brother and me, they trusted us with responsibilities I consider to be more substantial than keeping our rooms clean or taking out the garbage. When they could not understand rental renewal applications, they trusted us to be their translators. When they could not  help us with our homework, they trusted that we would find the answer. And when they inevitably could not miss a shift at Star Market to come to a school play, they trusted us to perform well anyway—a reality my wealthier friends’ parents did not have to worry about. 

Cambridge is one of the nation’s leaders in innovation. With households earning on average $343,000, it can be difficult for outside folks to realize the growing income inequality in the city. While Cambridge is home to individuals with incredible wealth, there are also parents similar to my own who worry they don’t have enough money to pay rent, buy food, or navigate an emergency. This concept inspired Cambridge RISE, a guaranteed income program that provided $500 a month to cash-strapped caregivers. The pilot ended in February, but the need for aid only increased since we distributed the first payments in the fall of 2021. Families have dealt with record-high inflation; the pandemic’s ongoing employment effects; and a childcare crisis that has hit the poorest communities the hardest.

If parents choose to skip a shift to attend a school play or a soccer game because they don’t have to worry about keeping the lights on, I view that as a net positive for our community.

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui

Rachel, a widow and mother of two, used the funds to invest in her children: Her son attended summer camp at MIT and kickboxing, and her daughter joined a soccer team and a math camp. The cash Rachel received went toward developing the skills and passions of the next generation of leaders. Rachel sums up the intent of such a program perfectly: “I want my children to have happy and successful lives; I want them to live, and not just exist.”

Stories like this are abundant, but so is the need in communities across the country. Our original pilot had 130 recipients, and I’m so grateful we were able to help them. But that wasn’t enough.

Beginning Wednesday, June 1, through Rise Up Cambridge, every resident with a dependent under 21 at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level can register to access $500 a month for 18 months. Every single family who applies and meets the eligibility criteria will receive the funds to address the growing economic divide and racial inequities in Cambridge while maintaining the city’s diverse population.

While this first-in-the-nation expansion is an economic policy, I see it as something far deeper. It is a symbol of trust in my community. Voters entrust leaders to make smart decisions on their behalf, and that trust should absolutely extend to our residents. I trust Rachel and each participant to use the money as they see fit without limitations. 

The American Rescue Plan Act has provided the City of Cambridge a unique opportunity … to [give] people the choice and power to decide what they need. For some people, it will be education. For others, it will be childcare or housing or food or a night out to relax and celebrate life.

Yi-An Huang, city manager for Cambridge, Mass.

We see recipients making similar smart choices across the country, with data from Mayors for a Guaranteed Income showing that thousands of Americans are spending their guaranteed income on basic needs like groceries, utilities and transportation. Evidence shows that unrestricted cash works at scale, with 2021’s expanded child tax credit essentially offering a guaranteed income to nearly every parent in America. That led to a record drop in child poverty and there was no negative impact on the labor force. 

This evidence should be more than enough to quiet the doubters. But as those of us who work in politics know, decisions are unfortunately not made based on empirical evidence—they are often driven by narratives about who is deserving and worthy of trust. It’s long past time for leaders to leave these dated tropes behind. While it may lead some to clutch their pearls, we must abandon our obsession with how many hours we can force people to work. If parents choose to skip a shift to attend a school play or a soccer game because they don’t have to worry about keeping the lights on, I view that as a net positive for our community.

Many of our RISE recipients also reflected on the intangible benefits they experienced with a little financial stability—less stress, better sleep, and more quality time with their kids. It is my deepest hope that if our city’s program can be a model for anything, it’s a future where we view these benefits as just as valuable, if not more so, than being able to pay for the basics.

As Rachel profoundly said: We need a future where every member of our community is able to not just survive—but truly live.

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Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui is currently serving her third term on the Cambridge City Council, and second as mayor of Cambridge, Mass. Siddiqui immigrated to the United States from Karachi, Pakistan, and was raised in Cambridge. She holds a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Brown University and a J.D. from Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law.