This Funding Intermediary Is Giving Guaranteed Income a Boost


For Taniquewa Brewster, a participant in a one-year, $1,000-a-month guaranteed income project that just wrapped up in Austin, Texas, the extra cash gave her more than the (much-needed) money. It also gave her the lived experience of having enough — and having the chance to decide for herself what to do with it. “I’m a community person. One of the biggest things it gave me was more time to help my community. One of my neighbors might not have had enough food for the week, or gas. Just having those extra funds, I shared them, like a mutual fund. That was a great thing for me,” she said.

Brewster was one of 135 participants in Austin’s first guaranteed income pilot, which came together largely through the work of the funding intermediary UpTogether (which we last covered in 2018, when it was called Family Independence Initiative). Since 2020, the California-based organization has channeled $195 million in unrestricted cash to families, including $30 million to some 10,000 households in 2022 alone. 

We’ve been following the spread of guaranteed income pilots around the country. In Texas, Austin’s was one of the first to be run with a city’s general operating funds. UpTogether helped steer $1.1 million in city money to the program — enough to fund 85 families — with philanthropy covering the rest. Brewster was among a group of participants who testified before the city council about the benefits that the extra cash brought. As a result of their testimony, Austin’s city council just announced a budget amendment securing another $1.3 million for cash grants of $1,000 a month to 85 more families.

This is, of course, one model of how these pilots are supposed to work — philanthropy seeds a pilot; government takes it from there. “These pilots are all about creating evidence and lifting the political will,” said Jesús Gerena, UpTogether’s CEO. Not that proof isn’t already out there in abundance. “There is plenty of evidence that demonstrates that it works,” Gerena said.

The proof is in the people

Even an extra $500 a month has been shown to significantly reduce stress and increase people’s ability to care for basic needs. “One of the things we’re seeing as a result of this is that people are able to improve their health and mental health, get access to more opportunities such as a better job and education, and it keeps them stable when it comes to housing,” said Ivanna Neri, UpTogether’s senior director of partnerships. Also, like Brewster, many people enrolled in guaranteed income pilots use some of the money to help elevate their communities. 

I met Brewster at her apartment complex in east Austin, an underfunded, mostly Black neighborhood on the edge of the hip and trendy new Mueller development. The walk from my car to her second-story apartment in the stifling Austin heat made me woozy. But Brewster was sitting serenely in a folding chair on her landing, looking out over the parched grass of the tidy complex, where she has lived for 17 years and raised her five children. She said she collaborated with her neighbors to use some of her money for cold drinks for kids and for maintenance people working in the heat and others who came by. “We had ice chests out here to pass out cold drinks and snacks, also.” 

Brewster also used the money to enroll in a training program to become a certified leasing agent, which she said should boost her income, helping her achieve her aim of earning by herself the $1,000 per month the guaranteed income pilot had provided. “I start on Monday. It’s a program that UpTogether and the income helped me afford it,” she said. She has also re-enrolled at Austin Community College and now feels confident that she’ll be able to finish her associate’s degree and transfer to a four-year university.

Why direct cash assistance is having its star turn among funders 

Guaranteed income or direct cash assistance was definitely a thing before the pandemic. But as COVID’s lockdowns brought the problem of inadequate cash crashing into many more people’s lives, funders who hadn’t thought much about it before were scrambling for ways to get fast cash to people who needed it, like restaurant workers whose jobs disappeared overnight. 

There have been many variations on the basic idea. Some funding efforts work to connect more people to existing programs while others envision a system that replaces things like federal TANF aid (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) with unrestricted cash. They all share the conviction, borne out by evidence, that what poor people need is more money. 

An early leader in the field, Give Directly, formed in 2009 to let donors give cash directly to families in need in Kenya. It has now helped route more than $700 million to 1.5 million people around the world, including in the United States. Another early leader, the Economic Security Project, funded two of the first guaranteed income pilots in 2017 and has now routed more than $15 million into pilots, narrative change and campaigns to help push policy. Its funders include some of philanthropy’s heavyweights: California Community Foundation, Ford Foundation, JPB Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, W. K. Kellogg Foundation and Melville Charitable Trust.

One interesting aspect of the guaranteed income movement is that it has big buy-in from tech types, including some megadonors. GiveDirectly has long been a favorite of effective altruist donors, while the Economic Security Project has its roots in the tech sector (including via Chris Hughes of Facebook fortune). Jack Dorsey, with his LLC Start Small, has been a major funder of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a hub for guaranteed income pilot implementation in cities across the country. 

Still, as the groundswell of interest during COVID and the Economic Security Project’s list of foundation backers show, plenty of people outside the tech sphere recognize the power of direct payments. Today, more than 100 guaranteed income pilot programs are running or have run nationwide. As Natalie Foster, president and founder of the Economic Security Project, told IP earlier this year, “This idea of a guarantee of income has gone from the margins to the mainstream in three or four years. And that is like political warp speed.”

Gerena said that while he does not see an imminent end to our current economic model that creates the need for direct cash, “people are understanding and moving away from blaming the individuals and seeing the opportunity to invest in those who are struggling.” 

Gerena cited a recent randomized control trial that UpTogether is involved in to assess a guaranteed income pilot in Massachusetts. This program began after the state’s department of transitional assistance finally admitted that its existing approach to poverty was not “moving the needle.” As he said, “We have government partners in Austin, City of Chicago, Baltimore, and Multnomah County in Oregon. People understand that we need to move away from vilifying and punishing poor people.” 

Focusing on strengths and system-level change

UpTogether, in particular, takes a “strengths-based” approach and calls itself a “systems change organization.” This is language straight out of social work, which made me curious about the organization’s roots. Gerena said UpTogether is not a social-worker-founded group, but that he and the founder, and some staff, have all experienced poverty and seen, first-hand, the strengths possessed by people born or thrust into difficult circumstances. “The genesis of this organization was a frustration with deficit-based thinking, looking at those experiencing poverty for what they lack, what they weren’t able to do, their worst. The key to our work is, ‘What is going right? What are their goals and what are the actions people are taking toward those goals?’ That became the strengths-based approach. What is going well in these communities? Who is paying attention to that? Who is supporting that?”

This systems-level focus is a key part of guaranteed income programs in general, which aim to change the locus of intervention from an individual’s actions to problems with the system. “What we know is that poverty is being created by the extraction of value from these individuals working at a very low wage, making higher education unattainable, with very little investment — and that’s before you even get to racism, sexism and other institutional challenges,” Gerena said. “For us to get out of this, we have to address the systems.” 

Gerena thinks philanthropy has a responsibility to lead in this work. “It has been built on the sweat and the advantages of this current system. They should be modeling how to undermine blaming individuals, and instead invest in them.” 

For Brewster, it’s also about changing one’s mindset. What’s transformative is “anything that can help you place more value on your life and your time,” she said. “I talk to others about it. ‘Look, you can do this. You can do that. You can do anything you want to do.’”