An Innovative Program Provides Cash Relief to DC Residents Hit Hardest by COVID-19


Houses in Congress Heights in Washington, DC, on June 15, 2020. (Photo by Craig Hudson for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

With discussions about a new federal coronavirus relief package up in the air, people with low incomes and people of color—the groups hit hardest by COVID-19—continue to suffer the coronavirus’s health and economic effects. So some local partnerships are taking relief efforts into their own hands. Here in DC, THRIVE East of the River is providing direct cash and food assistance in Ward 8.

In Ward 8, about 31 percent of families live in poverty and about 90 percent of residents are Black. Ward 8 has experienced higher death and unemployment (PDF) rates from COVID-19 than other areas of DC. These health and economic disparities aren’t new or accidental; they were present before the pandemic and have been exacerbated since. They are the manifestation of the structural racism rooted in US culture and policies by centuries of systemic oppression and discrimination against people of color. One need not go back as far as 1619 to see structural racism at work; at the beginning of the 19th century, Ward 8’s Anacostia neighborhood covenant forbade “negroes, mulattoes, pigs, or soap boiling.” But by the next century, policymakers decided Ward 8’s separation from the rest of the city by the Anacostia River made it an attractive place for “racialized public housing ghettos.” Today, even as Ward 8 continues to fare worse than many DC wards in economic and financial health, educational outcomes, and housing and safety, rapid gentrification and consequent displacement is threatening to push Ward 8 residents to new and less desirable places to live.

When the pandemic hit, THRIVE—a partnership among Martha’s Table, Bread for the City, the Far Southeast Strengthening Collaborative, and the 11th Street Bridge Park (a project of Building Bridges Across the River)—coordinated with local foundations, corporations, and individual donors to provide direct cash payments and grocery assistance to 500 Ward 8 residents. THRIVE was able to mobilize quickly partly because its partners previously collaborated to prevent displacement of Ward 8 residents amid increasing rents. In March, they recognized that the hard-won progress their programs had helped many Ward 8 residents achieve would be reversed if they did not step in with immediate, stabilizing support. 

The Urban Institute is working with the THRIVE partners to document the effectiveness of this emergency intervention, provide real-time data and evidence to inform ongoing program design and management, and, if the findings merit, develop a rapid resilience model that could be replicated by other municipalities around the country. Urban recently hosted a virtual event that explored how THRIVE partners and local funders have conceptualized the effort.

Here are a few of the lessons from the early days of THRIVE that can inform other collaborations of funders and nonprofits interested in similar initiatives.

  1. Bring together partners with the right community reach and roles.

    THRIVE partners divided roles based on their knowledge and expertise to cover the range of services residents need.

    Bread for the City, THRIVE’s fiscal agent, partners with the Family Independence Initiative to use an online platform to distribute cash via debit cards or linked bank accounts and offers legal expertise to counsel participants on potential risks (such as exceeding asset limits on public benefits) before enrolling. Bridge Park and LISC DC have coordinated fundraising, media outreach, and the partnership’s launch and offer insights into their areas of expertise, such as rent burden and equitable development. The Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative connects participants to sources of government relief, such as helping those who haven’t received their CARES Act stimulus checks or unemployment insurance to receive them. It also refers participants to online educational supports, parenting advice, mental health counseling, and reemployment services. Martha’s Table distributes groceries and dry goods and has provided invaluable insights from their own rapid-response effort that got cash to families served by their early childhood programs early in the pandemic.

    The partners’ trusting relationships with Ward 8 residents have helped them recruit and enroll about 185 households since enrollment began in early July.

  2. Calibrate the amount and duration of the cash assistance to meet need.

    THRIVE offers $1,100 a month over five months (or a lump sum of $5,500 up front) to participants. The partners based this amount on rough, early estimates of how long the economic downturn and recovery might take. Sadly, it looks like the pandemic will continue to impinge on the labor market through winter, so the partners are already discussing how any amount they may raise over their $4 million budget might be deployed to enroll new households beyond the original 500.

    The partners determined the $1,100 amount after consulting Urban research on the amount of cash that could buffer a family through the pandemic, ascertaining the living wage in DC, and considering what a small family might pay for a modest apartment in Congress Heights.

    Although the partners initially intended to calibrate the number of families THRIVE could serve based on the amount they could fundraise locally and nationally, the partners knew a prediction would be difficult under the pandemic’s extraordinary circumstances. Luckily, local funder and donor response has been robust, with about $3.5 million secured by THRIVE as of the publication of this post.

  3. Understand local context, establish guiding values, and prioritize racial equity in plans to deliver relief.

    Stimulus checks have been a critical source of relief for many Americans, especially those who have lost jobs during the pandemic. They can also be an important buffer against poverty. Evidence shows federally and privately funded cash outlays targeted to Black residents in places such as Ward 8 could help them break through restrictive and punitive safety net policies and neighborhood disinvestment that have depressed the economic prospects of Black Americans for more than a century.

    THRIVE partners understand this background and unequivocally believe that Ward 8’s Black residents with low incomes should make their own decisions about how they can best use this cash to weather the pandemic. Their emphasis on respecting autonomy and centering racial equity is core to THRIVE’s guiding values and contradicts the penalties baked into many US assistance programs, which are largely rooted in racist stereotypes. During our event, George Jones, CEO of Bread for the City, spoke about how systemic racism affects some participants his agency is recruiting into THRIVE:

    “In a country where we say we want people to get themselves out of poverty, our rules essentially force you to stay in poverty to receive public benefits. The most that [programs like Medicaid, for example,] will allow is less than $2,000 in assets, and we all know you are not going to get some kind of financial footing if you’ve got less than $2,000 [in savings].... That’s not only illogical but also oppressive. One of the things about systemic racism is that it looks like there’s not somebody in charge of driving these kinds of [barriers]. But […] if you’re in leadership, it’s your responsibility to understand that, if a program tends to be punitive, it is going to be more punitive on people of color because they are already too often disproportionately disadvantaged.”

Collaborations like THRIVE in other municipalities can use these lessons as building blocks to inform their own efforts. Urban will continue sharing data about THRIVE and will release a detailed evaluation by next summer. We plan to provide evidence on how cash assistance from private sources in tandem with federal relief benefits can stabilize any family with low income in crisis and highlight how programs, funders, and policymakers might close racial disparity gaps by targeting place as a core component of more universal policy solutions.