In a new working paper, Harvard Kennedy School researchers report on the impact of Chelsea Eats, a cash assistance program that supported residents of Chelsea, Massachusetts, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through a lottery—and funded by the city, state, and philanthropic contributions—Chelsea Eats provided up to $400 each month for nine months to people in need.

Researchers at Harvard Kennedy School’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston studied the impact of the program under the leadership of Jeffrey Liebman, Robert W. Scrivner Professor of Social Policy and director of the Rappaport Institute. The study represents the largest randomized controlled trial of a guaranteed income program in the country to date.

The city of Chelsea was hit particularly hard during the pandemic. Throughout 2020, it had the highest rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts. And with its large population of workers employed in service sector jobs who lost reliable paychecks during the lockdown and undocumented residents who were not eligible for most federal relief, the city also faced an enormous economic crisis.

At a Rappaport Institute event presenting the study results, Liebman said the level of food insecurity in the city was heartbreaking. “At baseline, 54% of the kids in our sample were sometimes or often not getting enough food to eat. I’ve never seen a number like that in the United States.”

Jeffrey Liebman lecturing in a classroom of HKS students.

“Those who received the cards were more likely to say that their household’s food situation and overall financial situation had improved.”

Jeffrey Liebman

To address this need, Chelsea undertook a major food distribution effort in the early months of the pandemic, giving out 800 to 900 food boxes daily. While the program fed about 10,000 people a week, it also put a significant strain on resources—the city needed to pay for things like transportation, boxes, and labor to keep the program running. So, Chelsea officials decided to experiment by  giving people cash cards to buy their own food, and Chelsea Eats was born.

The  program ran from November 2020 through August 2021. About 2,000 people—roughly 15 percent of the city’s households—were selected by lottery to receive cash cards. The program aimed to boost food access, satisfaction, and choice, while lowering overall financial distress.

Percentage of Chelsea households that received cash cards.

Liebman and his team compared outcomes of card recipients with those who entered the lottery but didn’t receive a card. The researchers found that cash card recipients spent about 65% of the money they received at places where food was the primary product, such as grocery stories, local food markets, wholesale clubs, and restaurants. They also found that the cards eased food insecurity in the early months of the program.

According to the paper, the program largely achieved its goals. The researchers write that “food expenditures and consumption were higher among households that won the lottery and received cards. Those who received the cards were more likely to say that their household’s food situation and overall financial situation had improved.” The analysis also studied other indicators like health outcomes and school attendance and did not find a significant difference between those who received the cards and those who did not, but the primary indicators around food satisfaction and financial security showed that card recipients were better able to buy more of the type of food they like to eat and were better off financially than six months prior.

 “When a local government is trying to deliver economic relief, it can be hard for officials to know what each family’s specific need is,” Liebman says. “Do they need food? Help paying heating bills? Diapers and infant formula? The advantage of giving cash is that families can decide for themselves how to meet their most urgent needs.”

Liebman also discussed the Chelsea Eats research with WBUR Radio Boston and in a CommonWealth Magazine podcast. The program is the subject of an award-winning documentary short “Raising the Floor.”

Faculty photo by Kayana Szymczak

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