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New York City’s first guaranteed income program is providing up to $1,000 a month to some low-income mothers of newborns. The minds behind the program are hoping it will be beneficial for early childhood development. NewsHour Weekend’s Zachary Green reports as part of our ongoing series, ‘Chasing the Dream: Poverty, Opportunity and Justice in America.’
According to new data from Columbia University's Center on Poverty and Social Policy, the number of children living in poverty increased by 3.7 million in 2021.
The child tax credit, which provided households up to $300 dollars a month per child during the pandemic, expired at the end of December. But a new program in New York City is easing some of the financial burden by providing between $500-$1,000 a month to new mothers.
NewsHour Weekend's Zachary Green has more in the final installment in reporting on guaranteed income. This story is part of our ongoing series, "Chasing the Dream: Poverty, Opportunity, and Justice in America."
In late 2020, 28-year-old Daniela Gutierrez was struggling. The COVID-19 pandemic cost her two jobs: one as a tutor at the New York Public Library and one as a fast-food worker. She also became pregnant in October of that year. She still had one remaining job: working part-time as an academic advisor at the City University of New York. But she worried that her wage there–$15 an hour–wouldn't be enough to support her and her baby in New York City.
That's the one thing I was really scared of is how to pay my rent. Like, how I was gonna afford to stay here in this apartment because– I didn't want to go into a shelter.
Not long after Gutierrez became pregnant, a social worker that she worked with texted her a photo of a flier for a new guaranteed income program called, "The Bridge Project".
I'd never heard of The Bridge Project. But I– I was desperate. So I was, like, you know what? Whatever happens– I have nothing to lose at all.
Gutierrez applied online and in December she got an email saying that she had been randomly selected as one of the first recipients in the Bridge Project–and that she would be receiving an additional $1,000 a month for the next three years. She received her first payment in July 2021.
I was doing maternity leave. But since I work part-time, it was, like, $150 every two weeks. That's all I got for my maternity leave. And then I was also thinking, like, ("Am I really in the condition to go back to work, or look for another job?" So when I found out that I got that, I was, like, I don't know. I was really excited.
The Bridge Project is New York City's first guaranteed income program. It was created by the Monarch Foundation–a charitable private family foundation–through which it receives all its funding. The program distributes payments of either $500 or $1,000 a month to 100 low-income mothers with newborns in Manhattan. Megha Agarwal is the executive director of both the Foundation and the Project. She says the thinking behind creating two separate income groups was to see how each amount of money helped families.
In a city like New York, where you have such a high cost of living, what does it actually mean to receive $500 a month or $1,000 a month? And what does that actually mean in terms of your financial stability, not just your ability to take in income and use that kind of in your day-to-day expenses. But how does that allow you to potentially save, potentially generate wealth, and does it?
A recent study published in the proceedings of the national academy of sciences shows how important cash is to newborns in low-income households. It looked at one thousand low-income mothers of infants. Four hundred of them were given unconditional cash payments of $333 a month. The other six hundred were given payments of $20 a month. The study measured the infants' brain waves over different frequencies and found that of the babies who were tested after one year, those in the higher cash group showed more fast-paced brain activity than those in the lower one.
There is decades of research out there that kind of points to the prenatal, postnatal, and earliest days of a child's life all as periods that are crucially important to– to child development. What you see is kind of, in the first three years of life, there's 80% of brain development that actually occurs. And even in the first year, there's 50% of your brain development that occurs. And so, what you don't realize is your earliest experiences, whether that's experiences of toxic stress, experiences of– economic instability, if that's experiences of kind of living in places where you're just not– you're not served in the same way that other families are, it has emotional, it has physical, it has– developmental implications for how you kind of live the rest of your life.
Researchers says that the mothers in the PNAS study spent their money in different ways, from buying more toys and books to taking time off to spend with their kids. Agarwal says that's a kind of flexibility that's meant to augment ordinary government benefits, like food stamps or housing assistance.
When we come in with kind of guaranteed income as a concept, it's never to replace what currently exists as government support. Those relief checks that came out in 2020, that– that quite literally saved lives. And I would say the same about the Child Tax Credit, even the more traditional ones like SNAP benefits, WIC benefits, Section 8 housing vouchers, those are the type of things that our families do rely on. You definitely are able to then apply it on housing. You're definitely then able to apply it on formula for your child or kind of in order to get food on the table. But if your car breaks down in the middle of the month, you– you– you're out of luck, honestly.
Daniela Gutierrez says that she's putting away half of the money she receives from the Bridge Project for rent. She spends the other half on necessities like food and transportation. That's especially important because her son, Jeremiah, was diagnosed with a motor disorder and goes to both physical and occupational therapy three days a week. She's also using her time in the program to apply to graduate programs at Brooklyn College and the City College of New York, where she hopes to earn a master's degree in sociology or urban planning.
What does that mean to you to be able to spend this money however you see fit?
Like freedom. It feels like I'm free. The fact that I'm receiving this money, no questions asked, is such a relief because it's, like, "Whew, good. You're set. You have to focus on two other important things right now which is your housing and your child." I was really depressed before. I know that money doesn't buy happiness, but it– it gives stability. And having this income has released– relieved that of me. And it's made me a better mom because instead of holding him and, like, kind of being there and then thinking about things in the background and not being a full– fully there for him, I am able to be there and not worry about that, you know. I'm not worrying about, "Oh, my God. I have– I have to get a job right now. I have to, like, how are we gonna afford this?" It's– that stress is, like, no longer there.
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Zachary Green began working in online and broadcast news in 2009. Since then he has produced stories all over the U.S. and overseas in Ireland and Haiti. In his time at NewsHour, he has reported on a wide variety of topics, including climate change, immigration, voting rights, and the arts. He also produced a series on guaranteed income programs in the U.S. and won a 2015 National Headliner Award in business and consumer reporting for his report on digital estate planning. Prior to joining Newshour, Zachary was an Associate Producer for Need to Know on PBS, during which he assisted in producing stories on gun violence and healthcare, among others. He also provided narration for the award-winning online documentary series, “Retro Report”.
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