A New Vision for Ending Childhood Poverty

Guaranteed income programs—like The Bridge Project in New York—trust mothers to decide what’s right for their babies, and spend their money accordingly.

Tynisha, 31, is one of 1,100 New York mothers and their babies enrolled in The Bridge Project, a guaranteed income program that provides low-income, first-time mothers with “consistent, unconditional and immediate cash.” (Instagram / The Bridge Project)

As head of The Bridge Project (TBP), a program that supports babies living in poverty by giving their mothers unconditional cash, my goal is to end child poverty in New York and beyond. At The Bridge Project, we believe this is not only a moral imperative, but an economic one. 

The earliest days of a child’s life are crucial when it comes to their overall development. Instead of ineffective programs meant to “undo” harm caused by childhood poverty, investing in preventing that harm can dramatically change the course of a child’s life, while costing far less than current reforms. 

TBP’s unique approach gives expecting mothers a one-time prenatal stipend, followed by cash payments of up to $1,000 per month for three years to eradicate childhood poverty and improve child development outcomes. We began our program in 2021 with 100 moms, then added another 500 moms last year. We’ve now expanded to every borough of New York City and Rochester, N.Y.—which will bring the total number of mothers and their babies enrolled in our program to 1,100.

This new group of moms are all first-time parents, which can be especially stressful given that most teeter on the edge of poverty.

Cesialina Graham, a youth HIV educator who lives in New York City and is in her third trimester of pregnancy, is one of our new moms. She shared her experience in the program:

I’m 24, I’m Afro-Latina, I live in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn and I work full-time as an HIV prevention health educator. I’m also in my third trimester of pregnancy with my first baby.

I’m really excited about the baby—it’s a boy, who I’m naming Jorge Manuel. But it’s also stressful, because even with a full-time job, living in New York City is very expensive. I have a partner who will help with financial support and I’m lucky that my job does give me some paid maternity leave, but I was definitely stressing about money at the beginning of my pregnancy. 

For instance, my rent is $2,800 a month. That’s basically 80 percent of my income, because I make just barely more than minimum wage, even though I think my job—helping young people keep themselves safe—is really important. I love my job, but it’s hard to make ends meet, even without a baby.

So I was really excited when I heard about The Bridge Project. I’m so glad my friend saw a post about the program on Instagram and shared it with me. It was really easy to apply, and I had heard about programs like this across the country so I wasn’t worried about it being legit.

I was thinking about maybe applying for other programs through the government, but none of the ones I know about just give you money to spend how you best see fit—they all come with lots of restrictions.

I make just barely more than minimum wage, even though I think my job—helping young people keep themselves safe—is really important. I love my job, but it’s hard to make ends meet, even without a baby.

Cesialina Graham
“Even with a full-time job, living in New York City is very expensive,” wrote Cesialina Graham, a youth HIV educator living in New York City, who said no-strings-attached cash payments from The Bridge Project “helped me be more calm during my pregnancy.” (Courtesy)

Graham’s hesitation to apply for other programs is something we’ve heard from mothers across all of our cohorts. They’ve either had negative experiences in the past, involving degrading questions and excessive red tape, or they’ve heard the programs are not worth the trouble. The benefits that one finally gets are often meager and don’t cover essentials for a new parent, like diapers.

In contrast, moms enrolled in The Bridge Project have the freedom and flexibility to spend their benefits as they choose. One mom recalled how the funds helped her get through the formula crisis last year. Not only did she have to travel to New Jersey from her home in New York City to even find formula, but her government benefits didn’t work out of state. Thanks to the cash in her pocket from The Bridge Project, she was able to cover the cost of her transportation and pay for the formula in full.

In our latest cohort of moms, we added a prenatal stipend, in case of unforeseen medical expenses or for expensive items like strollers and cribs.

Graham told us her plans for how she’ll use her payments:

I got the prenatal stipend and first payment a few weeks ago and have been saving it. I recently had my baby shower and got a lot of the things I’ll need for the baby, and the plan was to use the initial payments to cover anything else. Right now, my focus is on getting his nursery together. I’m going with an animal theme—soft green paint, and then these stick-on wild animals. I also have to get a bassinet, stroller and a car seat. I have an Amazon list going and I’m beginning to get things off of it. 

Honestly, even though I haven’t spent any of the money yet, just knowing it’s there is such a relief. It’s definitely lowered my stress. Before it was like, ‘Oh my god, how am I going to afford this?’ Now I know there’s something there for emergencies—like I’m currently behind a bit on rent, but now I know I’ll be able to catch up. It’s helped me be more calm during my pregnancy.

Many people asking us how we are ensuring people are doing the “right” thing with their money. To us, there is no right thing—other than a mother being able to decide what’s right for her baby and spend her money accordingly.

Nearly every mom we’ve spoken to talks about covering the essentials like rent and other bills first, then having a little extra to buy their kids a birthday gift or even saving up for a trip.

In addition to the monthly expenses, most moms have longer-term goals they want to achieve while they have the support of the program.

For Cesialina Graham, those dreams are for both her future and her son’s:

My goals with this money is to get more financially stable, to make sure my son has financial security.  I want to get housing that’s more affordable, whether that’s in Brooklyn or maybe moving somewhere cheaper and getting a little house. I’m looking at places that have good schools for my son, and also thinking about what I want for myself in the future. I’d love to figure out a way to combine my love of travel with my work, like a social worker who goes to different areas teaching things and helping people.

Graham’s aspirations reflect those of many in our program. While she’s just starting her journey with TBP, moms who’ve been in the program for longer have been able to go back to school to ensure they’ll have access to higher-paying jobs, move into safe and stable housing and spend more time with their kids. They tell us they feel less stressed, allowing them to show up better as a parent.

Our early data shows mothers are better able to afford childcare and to build up emergency savings. Longer-term research found increased organization and harmony in households—important factors in stabilizing a baby’s earliest days, preventing lifelong harm and benefiting society at large.

Ultimately, our hope is that the positive impacts of this program will help fuel the adoption of national programs like the expanded child tax credit. The reality is, families are struggling to make ends meet from coast to coast. Providing them with the agency to make their own decisions and build a better future for their families works in New York—and it can work across the country.

Up next:

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About and

Megha Agarwal is the co-founder and executive director of The Bridge Project, a program that supports moms and babies living in poverty through unconditional cash. She also runs The Monarch Foundation, a private family foundation.
Cesialina Graham is a recipient of The Bridge Project, a program that supports moms and babies living in poverty in New York and beyond through unconditional cash payments.