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Bread for the City hoped $5,500 would improve people’s lives. It did.

The Washington Post Helping Hand. (The Washington Post)

What would you do if someone deposited $5,500 in your bank account, no strings attached?

It would probably depend on how big that bank account already was. If it had $500,000 in it, you might barely notice. If it had $5 in it, you’d probably have a long list of things to spend it on.

And whatever those things might be, they’d be your choice.

That’s exactly what happened in a groundbreaking program organized by Bread for the City and three other Washington charities. More than 600 residents in Wards 7 and 8 — the city’s poorest areas — were given $5,500 to spend however they liked. The results shouldn’t be surprising: It made the recipients’ lives better.

The program was called Thrive East of the River. It employed an approach to addressing poverty called cash transfer and started with a fairly reasonable assumption: One way to help people who lack money is to give them some. This proved especially important when the program began, in the spring of 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic was costing people their jobs and threatening their health.

“Thrive was emergency aid,” said Brittany Pope, economic security supervisor at Bread for the City. “We wanted to provide emergency relief to these families and alleviate crisis.”

When his wife was sick, this D.C. man turned to Bread for the City

In addition to Bread for the City, the participating nonprofits in the two-year pilot program were Martha’s Table, the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative and the 11th Street Bridge Park, a project of Building Bridges Across the River. The $3.2 million program used no public money. It was privately funded with contributions from foundations and individual donors.

Bread for the City offers a variety of services to its clients, including food pantries, medical clinics, legal services, and diaper and clothing banks. The staff pored through the nonprofit’s list of participants looking for those who would benefit most from Thrive.

Participants could choose to receive the funds by direct deposit or on a debit card. In addition to the money, people were connected with community resources, such as benefits counseling and support with educational or employment opportunities.

I spoke with one of the recipients, a 64-year-old woman who lives in Southeast Washington and has been a client of Bread for the City for more than 20 years. The woman said she used her Thrive money to pay some bills — electric and cable — and to buy food. She said she splurged on a few things, including three cases of a sausage she likes that’s more expensive than her regular one, brand-name paper towels and better bottled water (Dasani).

She was able to do something that her father had always recommended: buy in bulk. She purchased larger sizes of Dawn dishwashing soap.

“I didn’t get all crazy,” she said. “No. I learned the difference as I got older between my wants and my needs.”

Pope is familiar with the criticisms some people have of cash transfers and of a similar concept, universal basic income.

She said: “I would hear, ‘How do you know that the participants would use the funds for something that would benefit their lives? How do you know they’re not using it for something nefarious?’

“And my response was basically: ‘What are you saying about the people who receive this if that’s the first thing that comes to your mind?’”

Pope pointed out that an Urban Institute report on the Thrive project found a majority of participants — 54 percent — reported spending most of their $5,500 to catch up on rent or mortgage payments. The second-most common use was for food and groceries. Some used the money to start small businesses or for transportation.

“Even if they wanted to treat themselves to a nice dinner or go on a vacation, that’s their right,” Pope said.

Because of the historic effects of racism, generations of families east of the river never had a chance to get a leg up, to acquire wealth, to pass it to their children. Thrive is an attempt to rectify that.

Bread for the City is exploring future ways to apply the cash transfer model. A program called Cash RX, funded by a class-action settlement with CareFirst, is due to begin later this year.

Pope said life should be about more than just surviving. “It should mean being able to have joy and to thrive,” she said.

For some people, $5,500 can bring that.

Helping Hand

Bread for the City is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. You can help it thrive by going to posthelpinghand.com and clicking the link that says “Donate Online Now.”

To give by mail, make a check payable to “Bread for the City” and send it to Bread for the City, Attn: Development, 1525 Seventh St. NW, Washington, DC 20001.

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