Officials in Chelsea, Massachusetts, are bringing back a program that provides up to $400 a month to low-income families to help pay their bills amid rising energy costs.
Chelsea Eats launched in November 2020 as the city refocused its efforts from distributing food during the pandemic to providing direct financial support to residents so that they could buy food and other essential items on their own.
Alex Train, Chelsea's director of housing and community development, said there are many residents who do not qualify for other forms of assistance.
"Our existing safety social net really overlooks undocumented residents, and these are residents that really sustain the regional economy, so it was critical for us to be able to economically support them throughout the pandemic," said Train.
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The first round of the program lasted nine months. Over 2,000 applicants were selected by lottery to receive cash cards that could be used anywhere Visa is accepted.
"It was a great blessing," said Ana Umaña, a Chelsea resident who received the cash card.
She said at the time, her husband was gravely ill with COVID-19 and could not work at the restaurant where he was employed. She is a stay-at-home caretaker and said they were able to buy food and pay some bills with those funds.
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"I don't receive any other card for food because I was not born here," she said in Spanish.
Professor Jeffrey Liebman led researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston in studying the program. They analyzed the transactions and found the majority of the money was spent at places where food was the primary product being sold, such as grocery stores, restaurants and convenience stores.
"When we compared the people who won the lottery to receive the cards to the people who didn't, the people who got the $400 a month were more likely to eat fresh vegetables, more likely to be able to afford fresh meat or fish," Liebman said. "Their total spending on food went up. And when we asked them how satisfied they were with what they're eating, that went up, as well."
Liebman said he was surprised to learn how dire food insecurity was among participants.
"When we interviewed lottery applicants, baseline, half of them were sometimes or often unable to give their kids enough food to eat, and I've just never seen numbers like that in the U.S. population," he said.
Those who received the cards were more likely to say that their household's food situation and overall financial situation had improved.
"I think what we saw in this in this study is that that works, that if you give money to people who are struggling economically, they can make their own decisions, and they do a good job of meeting their own needs," he said. "When the city was just delivering food directly to people, they had to set up a whole operation of transporting food into Chelsea, hiring people to break it down into boxes. When you just give people money and let them go shop for themselves, you save all those costs."
The study also found receiving the cash cards did not reduce employment or hours of work.
"Our residents used the funding very responsibly and it really dispelled that myth you often hear around the debate on universal basic income," said Train. "These types of direct basic income programs don't replace our social programs in this country, but what they can do is remove a lot of barriers that residents face toward upward economic mobility."
The city plans to launch a three-month direct basic income program in January. Another 2,000 residents will be selected through a weighted lottery, with priority toward undocumented residents and residents with underlying health issues.
Train said the goal is to assist low-income households with rising energy costs through the winter months.
"The overarching message we have about this program and about the conditions that residents continue to face is that while the economic recovery has been well underway in wealthier communities, in Chelsea and in many other environmental justice communities, the recovery has barely started," he said. "We're still facing a lot of the racial inequities that cause the community to be so vulnerable in the first place, and programs that mitigate rising costs are key to helping residents through this time."
The application will become available next week on the city's website, at city hall and through community partners.