Chelsea gave cash to over 2,000 households. Here is how they spent it.

Last fall, in the middle of the second COVID-19 surge, the city of Chelsea brought to life The largest guaranteed income project in the country, shifting relief efforts from community food distribution locations to simply transferring money to thousands of residents in the hardest hit community – with no restrictions.

The program was synchronized with the help of local non-profit organizations Chelsea eats – Almost every eighth household in Chelsea gave a debit card between $ 200 and $ 400, which was fully replenished every month for six months, depending on household size. The cards can be used anywhere that Visa is accepted. The residents could spend the money almost anywhere.

However, a new study suggests that the program worked as proponents intended.

A Report released on Monday Harvard Kennedy School’s Rappaport Institute for the greater Boston area found approximately $ 1.5 million – or 73.3 percent – of the $ 2.1 million distributed through the Chelsea Eats program in grocery stores, markets , Restaurants and other places where food is the main product. Supporters say the results help emerging research from similar experiments with guaranteed income that the recipients use the money for basic needs such as food.

“Government programs are most effective when they give people the tools and the freedom of choice to make the best decisions for themselves and their families,” said Jill Shah, president of the Shah Family Foundation, which finances and manages the Chelsea Eats. Program has contributed.

The initiative – which was funded primarily by the City of Chelsea from government COVID-19 relief funds, along with minor contributions from the Shah Family Foundation, Massachusetts General Hospital Center to Improve Community Health, and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley – Financed debit cards for 2,074 households at risk from mid-November to April. Most of the recipients reported Job loss or financial difficulties due to the pandemic.

While Monday’s new report doesn’t show exactly what recipients bought, researchers were generally able to categorize spend based on supplier data on the cards – with grocers being the clear market leaders. The researchers said the results were not surprising since “the applicants were largely recruited from users of the pantry”.

“While it is likely that most of these purchases will be groceries, it is of course possible to purchase many other items, such as cleaning supplies, from these locations,” they wrote in the report.

Almost exactly 50 percent of the expenditure was made in grocery chains. In fact, 32 percent of all spending at Market Basket was made, “mostly at the Chelsea location,” the report said.

Another 11.6 percent was spent in wholesale chains like BJ’s and Costco, and just over 5 percent of the spending was in local grocery stores and convenience stores. Almost 7 percent of the money went to local restaurants, with Dunkin ‘and McDonalds leading the way.

The researchers noted that they are working on conducting a more detailed survey of beneficiaries to assess “the extent to which the program is leading to greater food adequacy and a reduction in food insecurity”.

Retail made up nearly 21 percent of spending, with big names like Walmart, Target, Burlington Stores, Amazon, Family Dollar, CVS, and TJ Maxx making up more than half of the spending in that category.

A little more than 4 percent of spending went to providers classified as “Utilities and Professional Services”, mostly utilities like Comcast, Eversource and National Grid, or cellular operators like T-Mobile, MetroPCS and AT&T. A significant minority ” previously reported in their survey that they were lagging behind due to overdue payments on bills or the phone was disconnected.

Transportation costs such as gasoline, MBTA tariffs and carpooling made up 1.3 percent of the expenditure. And only 0.4 percent came from liquor stores and smoke shops, although the authors admitted that alcohol and cigarettes can be bought in grocery stores and convenience stores, so spending on these products could be “a little higher”.

They also found that only $ 1,947 was spent on rent – despite the pandemic additional pressure on the city’s housing market – probably because only a few landlords accept Visa.

Harvard Professor Jeffrey Liebman, director of the Rappaport Institute, described the program as an overall achievement in “helping Chelsea families buy groceries and other essentials”. He also noticed that the size of the program – which was significantly larger than that well-known project with a guaranteed income of 125 recipients in Stockton, California – “shows that direct payments can be delivered on a large scale.”

Chelsea City manager Tom Ambrosino told Boston.com in an email Monday that the city is hoping to find a way to extend the six-month program – or in some form or another. However, funding remains a challenge.

“We just need more money,” said Ambrosino. “I’m currently working with the Shah Foundation and the Council to find out.”

The program is currently funded until the beginning of summer. According to the Shah Foundation, they expect more news on this front in the coming weeks.

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