COVID-19 stimulus payments have been arriving in bank accounts over the last week or so.
Alex Papali started thinking about this moment about a month ago, when the idea first started bouncing around to send payments to every household as part of an eventual $2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief package.
The Massachusetts organizer for Clean Water Action, a national advocacy organization, Papali thought to himself that he’s privileged to be getting a payment, because some of the folks who most need it aren’t eligible to get it. The relief package leaves out many students, most immigrants, and shortchanges parents of newborn babies, and it’s going to be difficult for low-income people who don’t normally file taxes to get their money.
Then, Papali thought, while he could definitely use the money, is there some way that he could get it to somebody who needs it even more? Better yet, could he get it to an organization that was led by people who may be ineligible for a check, and let them decide whether to distribute the cash, fund structural change work, or some combination of both?
Turns out Papali wasn’t the only person thinking that. He started sharing his thought process on social media, one person saw it and connected him to another person, Libbie Cohn, and on Monday, April 6, the website for the Mass Redistribution Fund was live and taking pledges from folks offering to donate some or all of their stimulus payments. The funds will be divided up among organizations across Massachusetts who are working with, and perhaps led by, those who are most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic themselves.
“It’s an opportunity to pool more money and donors, but also to demonstrate solidarity and a united front among grassroots groups calling for the kind of systems change that this crisis is showing we need,” says Cohn, whose day job is manager of communications and development at the Boston-based Center for Economic Democracy.
By April 15, the Mass Redistribution Fund had received 54 pledges for full or partial stimulus payments and 70 other donations totaling $25,000, as well as a pledge from the Hyams Foundation to match at least a certain amount of donations.
As unprecedented as it is for 80 million people to be slated to receive a direct payment from the Federal Government in response to a crisis, millions who are technically eligible may not get them for a variety of reasons. Some don’t make enough money to file income taxes, so they have to fill out an extra form to make sure they get one. An estimated six to seven million people don’t report enough income in any given year to be required to file taxes.
Then there are folks who just aren’t eligible at all. That includes an estimated 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants. Retail and eating or drinking establishments hit hardest by COVID-19 related job losses are the two largests source of employment for unauthorized immigrants. Also excluded are “mixed-status families,” where for example one spouse filing jointly is a U.S. citizen but the other is an unauthorized immigrant. An estimated 16.7 million people nationwide are part of a mixed-status family, half of whom are U.S. citizens and 5.9 million of whom are U.S.-born children.
One of the recipient organizations for the Mass Redistribution Fund is MassUndocuFund, which itself is backed by a coalition of worker organizing groups across the state. An estimated 250,000 unauthorized immigrants live and work in Massachusetts. They also do not qualify for unemployment insurance, even with the temporary expanded unemployment insurance terms under the CARES Act.
Each Mass Redistribution Fund recipient is also out fundraising on their own for emergency needs, but they collectively decided it made sense also to work together as well for this campaign centered on the stimulus payments.
“We’re often competing with each other rather than collaborating,” Papali says. “We all thought we’d have greater reach collectively rather than just having the individual funds for each of the different groups.”
Others are pushing individuals to donate stimulus checks to individuals or other organizations.
Resource Generation, a national membership group of young people from wealthy families who are pushing for wealth redistribution through various mechanisms, has been pushing the #ShareMyCheck campaign via social media.
KQED public radio reported on a group of Oakland teachers who have pledged their stimulus payments to undocumented families with children in their schools.
The Street Vendor Project, an organization with a membership of 2,000 New York City street vendors, launched a campaign last week inviting salaried workers to pledge their stimulus payments to support street vendors who have temporarily closed down or have experienced drastically reduced sales as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Thousands of street vendors in New York City will be excluded from receiving support due to their immigration status, despite their enormous contribution to the culture and economy of NYC, and [despite] the fact that they pay taxes on their businesses using Individual Taxpayer Identification Number,” the Street Vendor Project said in its campaign statement.
The Mass Redistribution Fund is looking to expand the number of groups connected to its campaign platform. The recipient groups formed an advisory board with representatives from each group, other mutually respected grassroots leaders and the Center for Economic Democracy, which is providing back-office support for the fund. During their weekly virtual meeting, advisory board members can nominate groups to add, and if no prohibitive concerns come up, groups will get added to the Mass Distribution Fund.
The original nine groups are mostly based in the Boston area, and six more have since been approved to join the fund as recipients. They hope to add more from the rest of the state. The idea is to build and strengthen ties among organizers across the state in order to be more effective as a group in making and amplifying calls for key policy needs that all the groups agree on at the state level — such as canceling rent payments during the crisis, more funding and regulations around personal protective equipment and safer conditions for frontline health care workers, and decarceration, especially now as prisons and jails are now hotspots for the spread of COVID-19.
To be considered eligible, groups must generally be working directly with populations such as low-income people without internet at home or banking access, low-income non-English speakers, undocumented people, or incarcerated people. They can be meeting direct needs during the crisis or pushing for policy change in response to the crisis.
“The first call we had on the advisory board, we checked in on the framing of having a collective fund and the essential role of power building at this moment,” Cohn says.
The advisory board is also working out the details for how to distribute the funds among the groups. It might be based on specific requests by each group, or number of people served, but definitely with an equitable distribution mechanism of some sort in mind.
The Center for Economic Democracy has been facilitating a similar conversation since before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, as part of its Solidarity Economy Initiative. Executive director Aaron Tanaka describes the initiative as a “grantee-led participatory grantmaking vehicle.” Some but not all of the groups in that initiative are now also part of the Mass Distribution Fund.
“The advisory board members have earned people’s trust,” Papali says. “People know who they are and that allocations will be made fairly and transparently and as directly to the problem as possible.”
“This needs to be a collective solution, it can’t be done piecemeal,” Cohn adds.
UPDATE: We’ve clarified who’s on the Mass Redistribution Fund advisory board.
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi.
Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.