A New Approach to Solving Hunger Through Anti-Poverty Programs
“We know single caretaker families in Cambridge are struggling, are well below the Cambridge poverty line, and the impacts to single mothers and women of color are even higher…”
Food insecurity is on the rise in Massachusetts, but the city of Cambridge is taking an innovative approach toward addressing it.
As of August 2021, Cambridge will begin a guaranteed income test for 120 eligible single caretaker households in its city. The test will run over an 18-month period and low-income families will be selected via lottery.
To be eligible, households must be headed by a single caretaker with children under the age of 18 and fall below 80 percent of area median income (AMI), with the bulk of the participants under 50 percent of AMI. Low-waged individuals or families are defined by the number of members in each family; a family of one must earn less than $26,850 annually, while a family of 3 must earn less than $34,550.
Cambridge is the first city in Massachusetts to undertake this pilot program, but it joins a growing number of direct-cash programs across the country, including Baltimore; Paterson, New Jersey; Oakland, California; Madison, Wisconsin; and a dozen other cities.
Research has found that more than 75% of these cash allotments is spent in food markets.
In Stockton, California, a guaranteed income has helped families stabilize and plan for the future, according to the city’s former mayor. “What we found is that people did not stop working, in fact, people were able to find full-time jobs,” said former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, adding, “We saw significant declines in stress and anxiety and depression.”
From 2019 to 2020, food insecurity in Massachusetts increased by 55% and today more than 1.6 million residents struggle for food. The Chelsea Eats Program (Chelsea, MA) has handed out gift cards of between $200 and $400 to approximately 2,000 low-income families in the city; this program spent about $2.1 million in 5 months.
Outright cash or food cards ensure that families choose the food they need.
Despite the best of intentions, handing out food boxes can be inefficient and can result in wasted food, with too much of the same food being distributed too often. Beyond economic benefits, recipients of a guaranteed income have been found to be less anxious, less depressed and less fatigued from financial stress. Notes Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui: “I’ve seen the real everyday effects of economic insecurity, and I think this will be a really powerful tool. It’s effective and immediate.”
Taking Action to Address Hunger
Since the start of the pandemic, political leaders across the country have been taking steps to address hunger. The American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in spring 2021 has helped to:
- Increase SNAP Benefits through September 2021;
- Fund the P-EBT Program, which provides grocery benefits to replace school meals;
- Improve the WIC Program for Women, Infants and Children, providing fruit and fresh vegetables over the summer;
- Increase federal funding to the states for the administration of these food programs.
The economic fallout of the pandemic — which has disproportionately hurt low-income households — has required policy makers to look for new ways to get food to the hungry and has accelerated efforts to create direct cash payment programs. To learn more about hunger and food insecurity in Massachusetts, visit The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute or Mass Legal Help.
Organizations and Further Reading: