What We Learned from Chelsea Eats: How the Value of an Innovative Cash Assistance Program Stretched Beyond the Dollars.

During the height of the pandemic in 2020, United Way partnered with Chelsea City Manager Tom Ambrosino and the Shah Family Foundation to launch Chelsea Eats, the largest guaranteed income pilot of its kind in the country.

The recently released evaluation of this program demonstrates the impact of providing unrestricted cash to help people meet essential needs, contributing to the overall national debate about the value of cash for supporting household financial wellbeing.

“Those who received the cards were more likely to say that their household’s food situation and overall financial situation had improved,” said Professor Jeffrey Liebman in this recent article by the Harvard Kennedy School.

The results were so promising that City of Chelsea leaders recently announced that they are launching a second round of this program in January, drawing on American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to help residents manage the increased cost of basic goods and utilities this winter.

“This program was not just about food security, it was also about economic security and public health,” says City Manager Ambrosino. “It enabled residents to purchase essential supplies in a way that was flexible, dignified and accessible.  And it shifted the paradigm that government benefits must be restricted and scrutinized.”

Born out of the City of Chelsea’s response to unprecedented rates of food insecurity (54% of children in the baseline study were sometimes or often not getting enough to eat), the program provided monthly debit cards loaded with between $200-$400 over a period of 9 months for around 2,000 households. In doing so, the program both provided cash assistance to residents and helped to keep funds spent in the local economy, benefiting area businesses.

The evaluation found that even this small amount of money per month yielded statistically significant improvements in food security, and that providing these cash transfers did not negatively impact residents’ willingness to work. In fact, those who received the cash assistance were more likely to be working than those who did not receive the assistance.

“Chelsea Eats underscores the role of philanthropy to catalyze and seed new approaches,” said Bob Giannino, President and Chief Executive Officer at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley.  “Now, we can build on the results to shape the conversation about how guaranteed income pilots can be effective solutions to increase financial wellbeing for vulnerable households in our region.

“At a time when the longstanding work for equity and economic opportunity is center stage, the opportunities for multistakeholder partnerships like these are immense.”

The program is featured in a new documentary film, Raising the Floor, which premiered at the Boston Globe Film Festival earlier this fall. Read more about the full results here.