Implementing the Project

Implementing a cash transfer project across four organizations required the lead coordinators from each partner organization to convene weekly for joint operations meetings and monthly with executive directors and external advisers for high-level guidance.  Meetings often incorporated data collected by each organization or the Urban Institute so decisions on program adjustments could be made in real time.

Recruit and Enroll Participants

Criteria for enrollment were intentionally minimal: recruits had to live in Ward 8, have an income below 50 percent of the area median, and have a relationship with at least one of the CBOs that predated the pandemic. The program had no other eligibility requirements. The CBOs knew the community they worked with and could reach out to families who needed the assistance.

TOOL: THRIVE enrollment form

TIP: Set clear and mutually agreed-upon participant criteria. And set as few criteria as possible, to avoid creating unnecessary paperwork and barriers to participation.

WARNING: Understand that you are about to face tough choices. Think hard about how you will balance practicality with equity.

Distribute the Cash

The project had to be mindful of whether participants preferred a lump sum or monthly payments, when in a month the cash was transferred, and whether to give participants cash directly or deposit money into their bank accounts or onto prepaid debit cards or gift cards. Refer back to your values when making these decisions. Your choices will affect the cash transfer platform you select and the ease of accounting.

TIP: Distributing cash is not as easy as you might think. Getting money into the hands of people who have low incomes, sometimes do not use banks, and are marginalized can be difficult. Provide options because no single solution will work for everyone.

Protect Public Benefits or Offset Losses

Families with low incomes often combine income from multiple sources to make ends meet. When an additional cash income stream is introduced, understanding how that new source of income could affect a household’s existing income streams is important. Participants reported receiving benefits from the following sources: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps); Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; Supplemental Security Income; government housing subsidies and programs; and Social Security Disability Insurance. They also were very likely to be Medicaid recipients or participating in another public health insurance program.

Administrators of a cash transfer program should confirm what other benefits potential participants receive and whether they are likely to be eligible for other programs to determine whether a cash payment will reduce their benefits or make them ineligible for benefits. Program administrators can seek exemptions from benefit program recertifications and asset limits from  state-level benefits administrators. If those cannot be secured, the program can establish a “hold harmless” fund that would be used as a supplement if a participant were to lose a benefit. We briefly describe a few issues that came up during THRIVE.

  • Reporting requirements: Benefit programs have different requirements for when to report new income. In some cases, one-time payments or payments made in a finite period are not counted toward eligibility. Some programs require that only income over a defined threshold be reported. Bread for the City made pro bono attorneys available so potential participants could discuss their concerns before enrollment.
  • Treatment of income: Program administrators may wish to inform beneficiaries about whether the cash is considered a gift (which would likely not be taxed) or whether it may be considered taxable income.
  • Regular and irregular income: Income delivered as a one-time payment may be treated differently from income provided over a set period.

TAKEAWAY: The choices you make about how to protect benefits matter, and any exemptions you secure or identify may not cover the unique circumstances of each participant. Individualized legal support can help clients understand which benefits could be threatened.

TIP: Consider establishing a “hold harmless” fund to offset income losses for participants who experience modest, unanticipated losses in benefits.

WARNING: Consider the potential for accumulating medical debt in the event a participant loses health benefits, even on a short term basis.

TAKEAWAY: Learn more about protecting benefits from Urban’s Safety Net to Solid Ground research and analysis.

Provide Other Services

THRIVE connected participants with supports such as financial coaching, mental health counseling, employment services, service navigators, and weekly food. These supports ensured that participants had access to basic needs.

WARNING: Providing other services, especially distributing food and dry goods, can be complicated and cause implementation issues. Secure direct or referral partners that have the experience and capacity to deliver services beyond cash.

Offer Exit and Transition Support

The THRIVE partners shared information about other community programs with participants cycling out of the project. The partners provided a letter outlining other programs that people could seek out, including food distribution and workforce training. However, THRIVE already had a relationship with most participants, so those no longer receiving cash were not left on their own.

TOOL: Exit letter with resources

TOOL: Tax preparation letter for participants