NYC’s First Guaranteed Income Program Is Fighting to Support Struggling Families

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With the end of the expanded child tax credit plunging millions of families back into poverty, low-income families are struggling to remain afloat. (Fibonacci Blue / Creative Commons)

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to extreme financial hardships across the country. As is often the case, already vulnerable groups were hit the hardest, causing disproportionate harm for low-income women of color in particular. Now, with the end of the expanded child tax credit plunging millions of families back into poverty, low-income families are struggling to remain afloat. But The Bridge Project (TBP) is fighting for a future that supports—and empowers—the most vulnerable among us.

TBP is a guaranteed income program in New York City, providing biweekly payments to new moms and pregnant people in Washington Heights, Inwood and Central Harlem. The initial cohort, which began in June 2021, consists of 100 mothers, roughly half of which are Black and half are Latinx. One in five are undocumented, and all of them have an average household income under $52,000 per year (the median household income level in their neighborhoods).

Megha Agarwal, executive director of TBP, told Ms. they choose to focus on new moms because early interventions during the first 1,000 days of an infant’s life can have extraordinary impacts on the rest of their childhood and future success.

“It’s about providing support, dignity and trust in these mothers, allowing them to start off their child’s life in the way that’s best for them,” Agarwal said. “And we know that the brain of a child ends up mirroring what the child is exposed to. Positive early childhood experiences end up being reflected not only in cognitive development, but also physical outcomes, social outcomes, emotional strength and mental ability.”

The Power of Unrestricted Cash

Unlike many existing welfare programs, TBP doesn’t force parents to jump through hoops to receive the benefits they deserve. Guaranteed income stands apart from other programs because of its focus on providing consistent and unconditional cash. Instead of paternalistic policies that set limits for what they’re allowed to buy, TBP’s payments come with no strings attached. 

“It’s moving away from the traditional safety net that says ‘You’re only allowed to do this with your money, and this is the best way for you to become better,’ and allowing people to make those choices and decisions themselves. The same way that I get a paycheck, and I can spend it on a $5 coffee every day if I want to,” said Agarwal.

It’s moving away from the traditional safety net that says, “You’re only allowed to do this with your money,” and allowing people to make those choices and decisions themselves. The same way that I get a paycheck, and I can spend it on a $5 coffee every day if I want to.

Megha Agarwal, The Bridge Project executive director

Unrestricted cash is an essential aspect of how guaranteed income is designed to help already marginalized groups. Too often, economic policies rely on faulty assumptions that low-income women don’t know how to effectively manage money. But putting cash directly into the hands of people who need it most allows women to make the best decisions for their families based on their specific circumstances.

Agarwal believes the unconditional money returns the inherent dignity of low-income women who haven’t been afforded that dignity in the past, treating them like competent adults instead of infantilizing them: “Let’s put money in the hands of women who are part of marginalized communities, women who haven’t been trusted, and say ‘Actually, we do trust these women. They are just as deserving of the same choices and options that more privileged women have.’”

Sue (last name withheld for anonymity), a low-income undocumented mom receiving money from TBP, agrees. Since immigrating to the U.S. in 2016, she’s been unable to find a well-paying job—even though she earned a master’s degree in her home country of Nigeria. Struggling to support her two young children by working part-time at a beauty supply store, guaranteed income has made a huge impact on her family.

“It was a miracle,” she told Ms. “I’m so thankful for this opportunity, it helps me a lot. Especially with food for the kids, I get food stamps for them, but it’s restricted to only food items. So the things I cannot buy with my food stamp card, I can use this money. Like my son’s pull-ups, my daughter’s diapers, wipes, different types of supplies for the kids. Sometimes I’m able to save up about $1,000 and then I have it when I need it, to add to my rent money or whatever else I need. It goes a long way in every area and aspect of my life.”

I get food stamps, but it’s restricted to only food items. So the things I cannot buy with my food stamp card, I can use this money—like my son’s pull-ups, my daughter’s diapers, wipes, different types of supplies for the kids.

Sue, guaranteed income recipient

Sue’s story exemplifies what sets guaranteed income apart from universal basic income—it’s targeted to those struggling the most, and aims for equity, not just equality.

“One of the things that guaranteed income aims to do is push forward this idea of an income floor—basically saying that there is a level that exists, and we don’t think it’s okay for anybody to drop below that level, regardless of who you are,” Agarwal said. “But unfortunately that ends up being a lot of folks from marginalized backgrounds, it ends up being people of color, it ends up being women and their families. And so that’s why you end up with programs like ours, where the majority is women of color, where folks are undocumented, because they are the ones who are eligible. Because these are the people that we’ve let drop down.”

A Path Forward For Guaranteed Income

Launching a guaranteed income program during the COVID-19 pandemic certainly came with its own unique challenges. Agarwal and her team were prepared for many possible problems, like language barriers and logistical delays, but working remotely made it hard to establish trust in the program—after all, our current welfare system is so complex that simply being promised unconditional money sounds dangerously like a scam. Sue admits, “I really thought it was a joke. But my son’s social worker sent me the flyer, and I was home and had nothing else to do, so I filled out the questions. The next day they called me to say I was selected.”

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President Biden promoting the Build Back Better agenda in July 2020 in New Castle, Del. The BBB included an expanded child tax credit providing monthly payments for families. (Adam Schultz / Biden for President)

But now, with trust in the program established after seven successful months, TBP is ready to expand. Starting in April, an additional 500 first-time pregnant people will join the program, based in the current neighborhoods as well as East and West Harlem and Central and South Bronx. And the amount of financial support is increasing as well—the moms will receive $1,000 per month for 18 months, and then $500 per month for the next 18 months. 

For Sue, this news came as a huge relief. “I was already getting anxious thinking about it ending, like ‘oh my god, how am I going to cope? How do I begin to adjust?’ And then I got an email one night saying it’s been extended for two more years. I was so excited. I feel so much less stressed. Sometimes I get so worried, when I have so many bills to pay, I get depressed because I can’t get my needs met. It affects me mentally. But now I have peace. So this is a blessing, and I’m so thankful. It was like God had answered my prayers.”

But in the long run, individual guaranteed income programs aren’t sustainable. The ultimate goal is to build on TBP’s work to advocate for a federal policy to support all low-income Americans. The Build Back Better Act came close to achieving this goal via the expanded child tax credit. But while the bill has stalled in the Senate, TBP isn’t giving up the fight for a federal guaranteed income policy designed to help struggling families.

Agarwal shares, “Our program is ultimately about showing how our system should work, rather than promoting the status quo. We truly do believe in the inherent dignity and worthiness of everyone in the community, regardless of immigration status, regardless of gender, regardless of race. The idea is to show the nation that we can be choosing to invest in our most vulnerable, and in our future generations, but we just don’t value them enough to do that.” 

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About

Katie Fleischer is a recent graduate of Smith College and a Ms. editorial assistant working on the Front and Center series.