Respect Poverty

Guaranteed income program in DC lowered rates of food insecurity, report says

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Story at a glance

  • THRIVE East of the River was a program that began distributing cash payments of $5,500 to 590 Washington, D.C., residents.
  • The program ran from July 2020 to January 2022 and had no rules for how the money must be spent.
  • A report found 54 percent of recipients spent the money on housing while 42 percent used it for food.

A program that provided cash payments to a group of Washington, D.C., residents disproportionately hit by the coronavirus pandemic proved a big success, with recipients reporting substantially better mental health and lower rates of food insecurity.

Four community based organizations decided to collaborate and establish the THRIVE East of the River program in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the goal of providing direct cash payments and other assistance to people living in Washington, D.C.’s Ward 8 neighborhoods.

Ward 8’s population is overwhelmingly made up of Black residents, at nearly 92 percent, whose median household income sits at about $37,000. According to DC Health, about 26 percent of families live below the poverty line, with 21 percent of families live below poverty with children.

Through the pandemic, Ward 8 reported nearly 21,000 positive COVID-19 infections, the highest number out of all Washington, D.C. wards—and the highest number of deaths at 262. 

THRIVE East of the River began providing emergency relief to 590 residents of Ward 8 starting July 2020 and through January 2022. The hope was families could use the money to alleviate crisis, stabilize families, and foster mobility during the pandemic and recovery.


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The centerpiece of the program was a cash transfer of $5,500 to every participating household—with no strings attached on how recipients could spend the money. Households were allowed to choose how the money would be delivered, through one lump sum payment or five monthly payments of approximately $1,100 each.

Enrolled households also received weekly groceries and other assistance, like federal pandemic stimulus payments, unemployment insurance, financial literacy training, mental health support, and upon request, workforce training too.

As the program came to an end last month, the Urban Institute Greater DC found that more than half of the THRIVE participants spent their cash payments on housing, at 54 percent, with food being the second most common spending category, at 42 percent. 

Before participants started getting cash payments through THRIVE, 34 percent said they often didn’t have enough to eat, but after receiving payments that percentage dropped to 19 percent. 

About 71 percent of THRIVE participants also reported that the cash payments helped them invest in their businesses in ways that helped them weather threats to their livelihood. 

Urban Institute’s evaluation of the THRIVE program highlighted that cash relief can foster resilience for marginalized people and the choice of how payments could be used was central to success.  

“Cash transfer shows promise for smoothing transitions from poverty while illuminating systemic barriers that will continue, especially as pandemic moratoria continue to lift,” said Urban Institute’s report. 

An important detail in THRIVE’s program was at the same time cash payments were being made there was a near-blanket moratoria on public benefits like food stamps—so participants were able to maximize their benefits without being limited by safety net rules. 

Washington, D.C. isn’t the only place testing guaranteed income programs, The Bridge Project is giving a group of low-income mothers living in New York City $1,000 a month to test how small cash infusions carry the potential to cure poverty.

Chicago is also sending $500 to 5,000 low-income families, the largest universal basic income program in the country—as is California, which has allocated $35 million its annual budget for monthly cash payments for qualifying Californians.

Guaranteed income pilots are cropping up around the country as Americans have struggled financially throughout the coronavirus pandemic and as the federal government sent its last and final payment of its child tax credit program in December 2021.


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