Sightline researchers Michael Andersen and Margaret Morales recently joined Oregon Public Broadcasting host Dave Miller on the program Think Out Loud for a conversation about the power of cash benefits to keep people strong and resilient through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.
As the pandemic hit, Sightline’s housing and urbanism research team turned their attention to cash assistance as one way to keep people safe immediately and to build economic security over the long-haul. (See recent Sightline research on cash support, here, here, and here). Speaking on OPB, Michael and Margaret point out that American safety net programs are narrow by design: SNAP benefits (food stamps) can only be spent on certain foods in the grocery store, section 8 vouchers are for housing only. But people’s particular life circumstances don’t always conform to this one-size-fits-all approach. A benefit doesn’t help you if it’s not the benefit you need.
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Cash payments give families freedom and flexibility to attend to their particular needs. The idea, Margaret explains, “is that we should give people cash, stop restricting how they can use a benefit, and give them flexibility and the option to be creative to find solutions that work in their specific situations.“ As Michael puts it, “whether it’s a massive crisis like this one, or the constant private crises that we live through at different points in our lives, cash lets you customize that benefit.”
“Whether it’s a massive crisis like this one, or the constant private crises that we live through at different points in our lives, cash lets you customize that benefit.”
Michael and Margaret also dig into evidence that cash works, including studies from programs from Alaska to North Carolina demonstrating positive outcomes ranging from reduced childhood obesity to higher educational attainment, reduced crime, and greater ability to meet daily household needs like grocery and utility bills.
With a broad swath of Americans finding themselves thrown into a financial crisis that they couldn’t have anticipated, a federal one-time support check already distributed, and talk of more assistance, the coronavirus has propelled the idea of cash benefits to the mainstream in the US. As Margaret and Michael discuss, Canada along with most other prosperous countries around the world already had cash payment systems in place, systems that sped vital emergency support during the pandemic. They make a strong case that the US should catch up.