Cash Investments in Families: Boston Helped Paved the Way



On April 10, 2024 UpTogether CEO Jesús Gerena delivered the keynote address at an event, Guaranteed Basic Income Forum hosted by United Way of Massachusetts Bay. The following are his remarks edited for format.

I am really excited to be back in Boston, and have this opportunity to share some thoughts to help shape the conversation today. As many of you know, this is where  I began my career in social justice work, and eventually with  UpTogether.

That was 15 years ago – what feels like forever ago.

After spending the first decade of my career in Boston at the Hyde Square Task Force, working with youth to organize for change in their lives and community, I recognized its limits. The work was  impactful on an individual basis, and inside of our community. Yet, a more systematic impact was fleeing. It was around this time when I met Mauricio, the founder of what was then FII-National who was in the process of launching this work in Boston. I had the opportunity to hear him present and although I didn’t fully understand the whole of the work, something stuck with me as he shared that all of our solutions to poverty were top-down. We kept coming up with new programs or interventions to fix people or help them. We kept telling people what they needed, ignoring the biggest resource we had, the very people affected. 

This resonated with me as an organizer. It pushed my own limits of what I could do to help others. The very reason why I came to work in the social sector, to help. And here I heard this simple understanding: we didn’t need to help or come to a solution to poverty, people had the ability to do so for themselves. What they needed was the resources and opportunities to do so.

I was hooked. I applied to become the inaugural director of the Boston site and got the job. We launched in 2010 promoting the tenets of our approach; cash, choice, and community for families. On the cash end, it is what many of us see today as a guaranteed income. At the time it was not easily accepted, when we explained to folks about our work a common question we kept coming up against was, “How could we trust people not to misuse these funds?” Or when we shared that we are not a program or a service, the next  question would be, “Then what do you do?”

What we did is get out of the way to model the impact of direct investment and the power of community. We began to build the evidence that this worked. This idea is not new,  guaranteed income WAS talked about in the late 60’s by Dr. King and The Black Panthers. They knew that poverty is a policy choice.

What was new, is that Boston served as the first expansion of this work outside of California, and of course, it led the way. Even though the concept was new, it quickly came into families' radar and we grew. From our initial 35 families in four years we grew to be 1,000 families strong. This growth was led by the families, they spread the message and enrolled others with the support of a small staff.

Even though we were a national organization and I was invited to help grow our movement across the country and take on a national role, I repeatedly declined because I knew that by  growing Boston, it would become the example for the rest of the country, that Boston would be a beacon for others to follow.

When I think about those early days in Boston, I never would have imagined that in 2019, we launched the Trust and Invest Initiative (TIC) in Boston - an 18-month cash transfer randomized controlled trial. Or that when Covid hit, we would be poised to step up and distribute $130 million to more than 200,000 people across the country and we had government partners for the first time.

As I stand in this room, back in Boston, I can feel the momentum, here, across the country. What’s possible next?

I should add, we officially rebranded in 2021 as UpTogether. That’s when the first TIC families were enrolled.

And last year, UpTogether adopted a new strategic plan focused on systems change. 

We already have countless stories of how participation impacted members. And it mirrors what we see around the country

People tell us they have more time with their families. Their children can enjoy activities. They can buy enough food for the family. They can stabilize their housing. They have less stress in their lives and more security. 

UpTogether has invested more than $210 million in individuals and families since 2020 alone. The data from our work and guaranteed income pilots across the country shows the same thing over and over:

  • Members used the investment of direct cash to cover necessities.
  • UpTogether’s investments reduce stress and support mental health.
  • UpTogether’s investments support housing stability.
  • Direct cash investments have lasting effects on community. 

It’s extraordinary to see guaranteed income become mainstream. In 2018 we saw Mother's Magnolia Trust. In 2019, Mayor Tubbs starts guaranteed income in Stockton. And in 2020 Andrew Yang, a presidential candidate, is talking about UBI on the national stage. Then COVID in 2020, and governments and more philanthropic funders saw cash as necessary. And after four years, the results are conclusive – trusting and investing in people lifts them out of poverty.

Demonstrations  are impactful, especially to those receiving cash and to build the evidence. But alone they won't suffice. It's time to move from pilot to permanence, and that's why I'm here today.

UpTogether has a simple model.

Community, Capital and Choice.

Invest in people directly. 

Trust them to make their own decisions.

Allow them to find their own solutions.

Track their social and economic mobility.

Learn from their experiences.

And value their communities.

That part about communities  – communities have tremendous value. People share resources, knowledge, support and help one another. We can quantify this. We ask our members -  how often do you  give money to family and friends, share food, give rides, volunteer? 

By investing in individuals and families, we are also investing in their communities and strengthening their ties to community. 

We are changing the way we see families experiencing poverty and their communities.

We know that people are not to blame for their financial situation.

People need direct investment in their own lives. People must have full choice and control over their time and resources.

All these years later, it’s great to see guaranteed income taking off around the country and here in Boston. 

We worked with Geeta and Councilor Siddiqui to launch Cambridge Rise. Geeta has been a pioneer of trusting and investing in families. I think of Lida who received $500 a month from Cambridge Rise, who not only talks about finally being able to meet her basic needs and not worrying about running out of gas on the way to school and also, perhaps more importantly, how the cash opened up the space to for her to reconnect with her daughter, her friends and family.

And of course our dear partners at Camp Harbor View – one of few nonprofits around the country putting their own funds and focus into investing directly in families. The findings from their first effort were so powerful they are launching a second cohort today!

Here in Boston and across the country, we are seeing a  greater recognition that traditional welfare systems penalize people if they make too much money or try to build security.

We are seeing a greater understanding that racist and deficit-based policies and practices are responsible for creating the wealth gap and inequality.

Covid provided the proof, when we invest in people, they benefit, their communities benefit, we have less children and families living in poverty.

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