News & Politics

A DC Experiment in Direct Cash Transfers to Fight Poverty

How the DC group Thrive East of the River is offering a different kind of help.

After the pandemic took away Shardae Jenkins’s retail job, the 23-year-old single mother from Anacostia got behind on her bills and struggled to pay rent. She began wondering how she’d buy diapers for her one-year-old son. Then in August, some unexpected assistance arrived: $1,050 wired into her bank account—the first of five monthly installments. The cash came with no rules, so Jenkins used it to pay creditors and purchase necessities. In a time of crisis, it was a critical source of stability.

Jenkins and her son are among the nearly 500 struggling families from the DC’s Ward 8 who have received an unrestricted monetary infusion through the Thrive East of the River partnership. This effort by four local nonprofits—11th Street Bridge Park, Martha’s Table, Bread for the City, and the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative—aims not just to ease pain caused by the pandemic but also to help change the way charitable assistance is provided.

The philanthropic establishment has long been skeptical of direct cash payments—a reluctance partly rooted in low opinions about needy people, according to 11th Street Bridge Park director Scott Kratz, who is among those spearheading Thrive East of the River. “The knee-jerk response,” he says, “is ‘Well, how do we make sure money isn’t going to be purchasing booze or cigarettes or lotto tickets?’ ” But while struggling people can certainly benefit from free groceries or other non-cash help, monetary donations are more efficient and can have a greater impact. “These residents know how to stretch a dollar,” he says. “They are in the best position to know where needs are greatest.”

Even before universal basic income, a variation of this idea, started being discussed seriously as a potential government program, Kratz had been thinking about the direct-cash approach, which has been used successfully by international philanthropic organizations such as GiveDirectly. Once Covid arrived, he banded together with the other groups involved in Thrive East of the River and began raising and dispersing money—nearly $4 million to date. He says he’s been delighted, though not necessarily surprised, to hear how participants have used funds: not only to pay their bills but also to help neighbors. “What’s been remarkable,” Kratz says, “[is] the deep generosity.”

Now Kratz hopes that the District program can serve as a model for similar efforts elsewhere, something that is already happening. The Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, has been collecting data on Thrive East of the River, and nonprofits in other parts of the country are reaching out. As resistance to the concept—for both philanthropic efforts and government policy—continues to erode, Kratz believes “we can help push others further along the learning curve.”

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Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.