A man loads groceries into the back of an open truck.
Thrive partner picks up groceries and dry goods at Martha's Table to deliver to program participants. Photo courtesy of Martha’s Table.

In Ward 8, four organizations have come together to help residents improve their financial situation in a simple way — by giving them five monthly cash payments of $1,100. 

The program, called THRIVE East of the River, is a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its outsized economic impacts on underserved communities in Wards 7 and 8. It is a collaboration between Martha’s Table, Bread for the City, the 11th Street Bridge Park, and Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative (FSFSC). Initial funding was raised from foundations, individuals, and corporations, totaling over $700,000, according to a June press release. THRIVE aims to aid 500 families by the end of the program, and is currently serving about 350. 

Natalya Walker joined Martha’s Table last March and signed up for as many programs as she could, including what would turn out to be THRIVE. When she went to her son’s school to pick up the first check, she broke out in tears — and according to the woman helping her, she wasn’t the only one. For Walker and her son, the extra help has been unbelievable.  

“Everything’s been perfect. I’m just so excited,” Walker said. “It really came in handy because I really didn’t have anything, and I’m like ‘are you sure,’ and they were like ‘yes, this is for you.’”

The idea for THRIVE, which draws inspiration from similar basic income programs across the country, is not new. A D.C.-based direct cash transfer program had been batted around among some of the organizations since last November, according to Dionne Bussey-Reeder, the executive director of Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative. When the pandemic reached D.C., they adapted and accelerated their plans. 

“THRIVE was an excellent segue into moving our families in Ward 8 to an area of sustainability, Bussey-Reeder said, “and that’s the goal.”

[Read more: A national group of mayors is pushing for a guaranteed income, but without leadership from DC]

The first 100 families were enrolled in the program on June 15. Participants receive five months of support, including the five $1,100 cash transfers (which can also be taken as a lump sum), weekly groceries and monthly dry goods, and navigators to help families access available benefits outside of the program. 

THRIVE families are selected through the four participating organizations, each of which identifies eligible families through their existing programming. Martha’s Table is considering families enrolled in their education programs, like Walker, or non-Martha’s Table families who make below $35,000 annually, according to Teres’a Watson, Martha’s Table’s Family Engagement Specialist. FSFSC is also focusing on families already in their caseload, though they have helped enroll some new families both in THRIVE and FSFSC’s services, according to Bussey-Reeder. All four programs are still identifying additional families to be enrolled in the program. 

These families have used the money for everything from getting new household appliances, to putting a down payment on a house, to paying off debt and helping family members. Bussey-Reeder said the $5,500 helped SFSFC families invest in cars, strollers, and printers. 

“Little things like that change the trajectory of people’s lives, and we recognize that,” she added. 

The money has allowed Walker to pay her bills, handle expenses for her cleaning business, including purchasing business cards, and buy items for her house and her son. While she sees these things as essential, she was surprised others were willing to invest in her family. 

“I couldn’t believe it because I’ve never had my son go to a school where they were issuing stipends like that,” she said. “Since he’s been going there, everything has just been like a ‘wow, oh my gosh, are you really doing this?’ Since he’s only four, I guess I wasn’t expecting it.” 

For families who have lost income during COVID–19, the cash transfer can help them pay back rent, ensuring they will not be evicted when the eviction moratorium is lifted. While the national moratorium may expire on Dec. 31 if Congress fails to act, D.C.’s local moratorium lasts until 60 days after Mayor Bowser declares an end to the COVID-19 public health emergency. “Families have really expressed to us how they have been able to pay their bills,” Watson said.

 

A Black woman stands next to a table filled with bags of food.

Martha’s Table’s Family Engagement Specialist Teres’a Watson greets THRIVE families, as they pick up their groceries and dry goods. Photo courtesy of Martha’s Table

THRIVE is targeting Southeast D.C. residents, who are more likely to spend a large portion of their income on housing and are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. According to data from the Mayor’s office, Wards 7 and 8 have the third and fourth highest numbers of cases by ward in the District. 

These neighborhoods, which are overwhelming communities of color, also face a lack of essential services. Ward 8 has one grocery store for just under 80,000 residents. Ward 6, in comparison, has just under 95,000 residents and 10 full-service grocery stores. This makes the extra money essential for some residents, according to Tracy Knight, social services director of Bread for the City.

“People have some relief and some options they didn’t have before,” Knight said. She recalled one woman who, when she found out she was being offered a spot in the program said, “Things like this just don’t happen to people like me.” 

[Read more: Southeast DC residents march in “grocery walk” against food deserts in 2017]

“It was a good reminder that it’s not everyday that you just fall into $5,500 dollars, and what a change that can make for anyone, especially people who are living so close to poverty,” Knight added.  

THRIVE follows a model similar to other limited basic income programs gaining popularity across the country. The organizers hope it will serve as a model for community rapid response. Unlike traditional social service programs that focus on connecting individuals to benefit programs and case managers, basic income programs provide a set amount of cash directly to families monthly.

For Walker, the ability to make her own decisions about where to spend the money was welcome. “I was able to do everything that I needed to do, it wasn’t just okay I could go to Giant or Safeway, I knew I could pay for other things.”

[Read more: In 2018, the Department of Human Services piloted giving families cash instead of subsidizing specific expenses]

This model, though it allows participants to have more flexibility in what they can use money for, can present challenges. A reported increase in income can mean D.C. residents are no longer eligible for benefits, including food stamps and Medicaid. Potential participants are encouraged to speak to legal experts provided by THRIVE to ensure they know if they will lose access to benefits. 

“The main challenge we have is figuring out how to do this cash transfer work without endangering people’s public benefits,” Knight said. “$5,500 is a lot of money, but it’s absolutely nothing if you don’t have Medicaid.” 

At SFSFC, another element of the program is education — every person who enters the THRIVE program through their organization is enrolled in a financial literacy program exploring budgeting, credit scores, and long-term financial planning. 

“It really goes into you, the individual, and sustaining your finances for your family, and how do you see yourself beyond just you today,” Bussey-Reeder said. 

A Black women holds two shopping bags.

Families pick up groceries weekly. Photo courtesy of FSFSC

According to a press release, the organizations decided on the length of the program, five months,  in the hopes that it would cover families until they can return to jobs affected by COVID-19 or secure public resources. The amount of money per month, $1,100, was based on estimates that the money could cover either rent or basic food and other costs for a family of three. The first set of families, who joined the program in June, will be receiving their last monthly payment soon, though some may still receive food and other services, according to Knight. 

THRIVE is still enrolling the remaining 150 participants for this version of the program. Though the program does not have specific plans for what the next iteration of THRIVE will look like, it’s something all the participating organizations are interested in. Each organization is identifying a current THRIVE participant to bring into the planning process for the future of the program and exploring further sources of funding. 

“Cash transfer work is just really important. We have for a long time in the social services and related fields, we’ve had these programmatic approaches, just hiring more case managers and connecting people who were living in poverty with more case managers as if there was something that was wrong with them,” Knight said. “The problem is the system that creates poverty and leaves people in poverty, and so if we really want to address poverty, we need money. People don’t need five case managers, they need money.” 

Bussey-Reeder sees an opportunity for similar programs to expand into the city at large, though she stressed that she thought the model and teamwork pioneered by THRIVE would be crucial to its success. That being said, she’s hoping to incorporate a new partner in the city government to help expand and fund the program. 

“We definitely would like for a city-wide initiative, we know the struggles don’t just exist in wards 8 and 7.”

All the organizations participating in THRIVE stress the importance of providing cash directly to those most in need. 

“If you want to see families move out of a poverty-stricken situation, you have to put some economics behind that,” Bussey-Reeder said. “It really makes my eyes water, when I think about how many families, how many stories we’ve been told.”