Direct income supports (such as cash transfers) can stabilize households during crises and recoveries. They show special promise as an equitable means of assisting families of color with low incomes, who because of structural racism are disproportionately affected by health and economic hardships during times of crisis.
This report documents findings and lessons learned from THRIVE East of the River, a guaranteed-income pilot that provided emergency cash relief of $5,500 to almost 600 Washington, DC, households during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. THRIVE was launched by four community-based organizations and provided cash as well as other services to participants who were mostly Black, had low incomes, and lived in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River where residents experienced disproportionately negative economic impacts of the pandemic. THRIVE cash gifts and operations were privately funded by foundations, corporations, and individual donors. By the conclusion of the project, the partners had raised $4.43 million and distributed $3.19 million to families. The cash gift, which most participants received as a single payment, places THRIVE among the largest privately funded unconditional cash-relief efforts ever offered in the US.
The Urban research team documented the emergency intervention’s effectiveness and gathered data to inform ongoing program design and management through surveys, qualitative interviews, administrative data, program data, and documentation of THRIVE operations meetings. The largest share of participants (54 percent) reported spending “all or almost all” or “a lot” on rent or mortgage payments. The second largest share of participants targeted their funds toward food, with 42 percent spending “all or almost all” or “a lot” on food. Participants also reported using funds on transportation, debt reduction, and professional goals, including investments in small businesses.
THRIVE participants reported substantially better mental health and lower rates of food insecurity than other people with low incomes, both nationally and in DC, after receiving the cash payments. Thirty-four percent of participants reported that before receiving the payments, they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat; 19 percent reported that after receiving their payments. Sixty percent of participants reported that before receiving cash payments, they were using personal savings to meet households needs, but only 50 percent reported doing so after receiving payments. Around 10 percent of THRIVE participants reported being small-business owners. About 71 percent stated that THRIVE cash helped them invest in their businesses in ways that helped them weather threats to their livelihood.
The research team also found that THRIVE’s impact likely would have been substantially dampened if the safety net had been operating normally. At the height of the pandemic, the near-blanket moratoria on reductions to benefits such as SNAP positioned THRIVE to offer a unique (though limited) glimpse into some of the choices participants might make if not limited by safety net rules, The report underscores the importance of understanding the interaction between cash infusion and public benefits in order to offer cash transfer as a tool households can use to transition smoothly from stability to mobility. The report also highlights the equity and efficiency of cash as a means of resolving the disproportionately harsh problems marginalized people often experience during times of crisis and economic downturn.