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A ‘Financial Vaccine’: Cambridge Launches Guaranteed Income Pilot Program

The Fridge in the Square, a community fridge in Harvard Square, launched earlier this year to support local residents experiencing food insecurity. Despite its wealthy universities and companies, a recent study found 20 percent of Cambridge residents make $13,000 dollars a year.
The Fridge in the Square, a community fridge in Harvard Square, launched earlier this year to support local residents experiencing food insecurity. Despite its wealthy universities and companies, a recent study found 20 percent of Cambridge residents make $13,000 dollars a year. By Truong L. Nguyen
By David R. Shaw, Crimson Staff Writer

Cambridge will pilot a guaranteed income program, doling out $500 no-strings-attached monthly payments to 120 eligible, low-income families for 18 months starting in August.

Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui announced the Cambridge Recurring Income for Success and Empowerment project at a press conference Thursday. Single caretaker households who fall below 80 percent of the median area income and have a child under 18 are eligible to enroll in the program. The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Guaranteed Income Research, which is advising the city on the new program, will select 120 families who fit that criteria through a lottery.

Siddiqui called the program “a financial vaccine” to protect low-income Cambridge residents, many of whom have been hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We know single caretaker families in Cambridge are struggling, are well below the Cambridge poverty line, and the impact to single mothers and women of color are even higher; we need a financial vaccine for Cambridge’s most vulnerable residents,” Siddiqui said in a press release Thursday.

One-in-10 Cambridge families with children under 18 live below the poverty line. That statistic jumps to one-in-three for “female-headed” households. A study published by the Cambridge Community Foundation earlier this month found that 20 percent of Cambridge residents make $13,000 dollars a year. Among those low-income households who have children, 70 percent have single caregivers.

Vice Mayor Alanna M. Mallon, who is helping launch the project alongside Siddiqui and City Councilor Marc C. McGovern, said she believes the program will help families like her own.

“As someone who was raised by a working single mom who endlessly struggled to keep a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs, I know just how transformative this pilot will be for our low-income residents,” Mallon said in the release. “The emotional and financial stress of continually living paycheck to paycheck perpetuates the generational cycle of poverty.”

Cambridge will become the second city in the Commonwealth to experiment with a guaranteed income program.

In November, Chelsea launched a similar program, through which it will grant monthly payments to 2,000 families for six months.

Cambridge joins dozens of other cities throughout the country to pilot a guaranteed income program. Others include Baltimore, Md., Compton, Calif., Oakland, Calif., and St. Paul, Minn.

A study published in March showed a universal basic income program in Stockton, Calif. yielded promising results.

Through the program, in which 125 randomly selected individuals from neighborhoods with average incomes below the city median were given $500 a month for two years, full-time employment increased for those who received the payments compared to those in the control group, and payment recipients were less depressed and anxious.

Then-Stockton Mayor Michael D. Tubbs — a current fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics — led the program before founding the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income network, which Cambridge’s Siddiqui joined this year.

Mayors for a Guaranteed Income is the primary funder for Cambridge RISE, contributing $500,000. In addition, Harvard, MIT, and the Cambridge Community Foundation have made contributions to the program ranging from $100,000 to $200,000 each.

Harvard’s Director of Government and Community Relations Tom Lucey wrote in the release that the University is “pleased” to support the universal income program.

“The university is proud of our ongoing work with the City and its partners to address critical challenges facing our community – in areas ranging from public health to equity to social justice – particularly as we emerge from a unique and complex year,” he wrote.

—Staff writer David R. Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidrwshaw.

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