The Bridge Project Gives Moms ‘A Little Space to Breathe’
More and more cities are investing in pilot guaranteed income projects and the Bridge Project makes the first such effort in New York City. Launched in June 2021 by The Monarch Foundation, The Bridge Project is designed to support low-income mothers in New York City during the first 1,000 days of their children’s lives by providing them with unconditional cash benefits on a biweekly basis. One hundred moms with low-incomes are already enrolled in the program and applications for a second trial of 500 moms opens April 1; details are available on the Bridge Project web site. Spotlight spoke recently with Monarch Foundation co-principal Holly Fogle—the transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Give us an overview of the Bridge Project
The Bridge Project is New York City’s first guaranteed income program, and we are targeting mothers, expecting mothers or new mothers, for the first three years of a baby’s life. And it really grew out of the desire by my husband and me to really support babies in New York City and to think about how we might eradicate child poverty in New York. The way the program works is that we give the mothers either $500 or $1,000 a month for three years, and it’s completely unrestricted cash, no strings attached. It’s that simple.
Who gets $500 and who gets $1,000?
It was important for us to contribute to this broader body of work that’s building around the country around guaranteed income. And so, we’ve partnered with the Center for Guaranteed Income Research at the University of Pennsylvania (CGIR) and they thought it would be very important to test whether a different amount of money makes a difference and what kind of a difference it makes. So, it’s a very intentional pilot design by the Center so that we have 50 moms receiving $500 and 50 moms receiving $1,000 a month in this first phase. And then there’s a control group that receives no money, but is paid for their time to fill out surveys, etc.
We are going to launch phase two in New York City in June and July, and that will expand our group to an additional 500 moms, for a total of 600. But that phase will be a little different. With a deep recognition that these first months of life are probably the most important for a person’s entire life, we’re going to do $1,000 a month for the first 18 months for the entire 500 mothers and then move that down to $500 for the second 18 months for that same group. We’ll have a couple of different phases going on and we’ll be able to see if there’s any real difference in those results through the Center’s work.
How do recipients qualify?
It’s quite simple. You need to be a mom with a baby, not exceed the income limit and you need to live in a certain set of zip codes. Our first phase targeted northern Manhattan, the neighborhoods of Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood. In our next phase, we’re going to increase that range of neighborhoods into the Bronx as well and into East Harlem. The third thing is you need to be below a sustainable living metric in New York City, which is $52,000 a year. Our recipients in the first phase averaged far below that, with average income around $14,500.
And recipients can still receive other kinds of aid?
They can as part of our project, but due to the punitive nature of much of our safety net, they may face a reduction in other benefits they receive. One thing that we were quite concerned about, as many of these guaranteed income pilots are, is that we would not want our mothers to be disqualified from other aid because of the aid they are getting from the Bridge Project. We’re worked really closely with Leap Fund and with the Federal Reserve out of Atlanta to use tools that give mothers the best possible information on what the impact of taking part in the program will be on their existing benefits so they can decide whether they want to be part of the program or not.
And why give benefits just through age 3?
There is a huge amount of academic research out there that shows the first thousand days of a child’s life are unbelievably important. I have spent the last eight years of my life working in a nonprofit that I founded up in northern Manhattan called Nido de Esperanza and we had been working with families living below the federal poverty line with young children based on this idea. And what I had seen is that while we know how important a baby’s brain is, in our programs, in our social safety nets, we are not investing in these babies in any real way. We’re at the bottom of developed countries on this front, which breaks my heart.
There’s great work that Dr. Bruce Perry has come out with in which he uses the analogy that these first days and months of life are like the basement wall of a house. And if that basement wall is cracked or crooked or not put in properly, then it doesn’t matter what tile we put on the second-floor bathroom. But as a country, we haven’t accepted that and then put our spending priorities against that.
It sounds like simplicity is very important to the program. How do moms get the benefit? Are some of them unbanked?
For our first phase, it was really important for us that if they wanted to be banked, we wanted to be able to bank them. So, we worked with a provider that was able to do that without any fees for the moms and they opened up a bank account for all of our mothers, including those that were undocumented, that wouldn’t have a Social Security or ITIN number; that’s a guiding principle for us. We give them a debit card that is in the mother’s name and she’s able to take that to any ATM machine or any place you could use a debit card and get cash or to buy diapers, food or whatever she needs. And that gets replenished automatically on a biweekly basis.
I know you just started recently, but do you have any sense so far of spending patterns or anecdotal evidence about how this is working?
We are still in the early days, but CGIR is actually looking at some of the data for our first readout right now. So, in the next month, we will have early data on spending and demographics to share with you all. But what we have been hearing anecdotally from our mothers is that this is life changing. As we know, cash offers the ultimate flexibility. And at the end of the day, these mothers are using it in all kinds of different ways. One is buying a washer and dryer because her laundry room is communal and many of her neighbors were going maskless at the height of the pandemic and she did not feel safe taking an infant into that room. Others are using it for transportation to get to medical appointments. We have one mom who is saving some of the money each month so that she has a bit of a nest egg so that if she needs to move apartments, she’s able to do that in a safe way.
We have other mothers that are using it to pay for childcare so they can go back to school or that they can have a quiet two hours to study. And of course, everybody is using it for diapers and food and the necessities. What one mom said to us last week was that it gave her the ability to breathe. And I think that sort of sums it up. The stress that any parent feels when you’re worried about how you’re going to provide dinner or diapers or a safe spot to sleep for your baby is a heartbreaking stress. And just to know that those really basic necessities are taken care of gives you a little space to breathe.
And for some moms, I’m sure the expanded Child Tax Credit was also a lifeline
As a person who deeply believes in the future of our country and how important babies are to that future, I think it’s really heartbreaking that the expanded Child Tax Credit has stalled and gone away. Recent research shows that 3.7 million kids were pushed back into poverty by missing just January’s payment. The Child Tax Credit really was a form of guaranteed income for parents in this country and that makes an enormous difference when it comes to that breathing space that we’re talking about in these earliest days of a child’s life.
Has the pandemic experience, with the more extensive use of cash benefits, had an impact on the views people held towards this previously and convinced them that it works?
It does work. We still get these emails all the time asking, how do you know people aren’t using this on drugs or alcohol or other vices. There have been a number of studies on direct cash from across the country and across the world and they basically all say the same thing: the spending on those vices actually goes down when people have direct cash and the ability to use it as they want. Because they’re facing less stress; are able to go find a different job, to enter the work force in a different way. And these are studies that are just looking at people at large—men, women, teenagers, homeless people. What excites me about our work is we’re putting this directly into the hands of mothers with young babies. I think it will be very exciting when we see the data because as a society, we talk about how important a mother’s love is and how ferocious a mother’s love is and yet we have a whole social safety net that absolutely does not trust her. And whether it’s keeping a cell phone on so she can talk to her own mother or keeping her internet on so her older children can go to school via Zoom or being able to take a cab to a hospital in the middle of the night because a baby has 103 fever, my money’s on the mother every time. As a mother myself, I’m going to trust her to do what her baby needs her to do.
The other thing we hear a lot is, now people are just going to be lazy and not work. And I think that’s a ridiculous statement. In New York City, on the top end, we would be giving a mother $12,000 a year. No one can survive in New York city on $12,000 a year, particularly if you have dependents and young children. We know diapers alone cost almost a thousand dollars a year, and there’s no program to help you with that from the government. I think at the end of the day, what we see from programs like Stockton (Calif.) or Jackson (Miss.) is that in the readouts from these early pilot programs, people are finding full time employment at much higher rates than people in the control groups. I think the early data’s really, really promising, but I also think it tells us things that we intuitively know. No one wants to be poor. People want an opportunity. People have dreams—we have dreams for ourselves and we have dreams for our babies. What we’re trying to do is recognize that people have dreams and to support them and empower them and give them the dignity to make those dreams real.