As someone who works in catering in the nation’s capital, I’ve always lived on a tight budget, planning month to month. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, things got truly precarious. Unrestricted cash programs gave me the traction I needed to keep moving forward.
You can imagine my disdain when, in the same building where I’ve served food and drinks, Congressional leaders debate ways to impose more “work requirements” on people like me going through tough times–implying that people facing economic challenges are not already working hard. It is as if they don’t recognize the value of unpaid work such as caring for loved ones–to them, if you’re not earning an income, you’re not worthy. In recognition of Labor Day, it is critical that we recognize the power cash can have on strengthening worker power and challenge the stigma around “work requirements”, a stigma that ignores or undervalues certain kinds of labor. Going further, we have to recognize how much we let that stigma block roughly 19 million children from being able to access the full Child Tax Credit or other forms of cash programs.
The truth is, if our political leaders really want to help people find good jobs, do meaningful work, and advance their careers, they wouldn’t impose bureaucratic work requirements–they’d provide unrestricted cash. My experience and the experience of workers across the country demonstrate this.
In 2019, I had a steady job as a catering server and bartender in the US House of Representatives and the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center. Having been born and raised in Washington D.C., it meant a lot for me to work in my home city for nearly thirty years, in a field I loved–hospitality–among wonderful co-workers from all over the world.
But when the pandemic hit, I was out of work. As much as I loved my job, it had provided me only enough to afford my modest cost of living, but not enough to save. My health benefits soon ran out. Like millions of other workers, I would have been in an even tougher spot if not for the federal government stepping in to provide stimulus checks and increased unemployment benefits. The success of those early pandemic programs inspired me and a group of peers to start “Let’s GO DMV!” a guaranteed income program focused on people like me who lost income during the pandemic.
Let’s GO DMV! provides $1,000 a month for five years to hospitality workers whose income was hurt due to COVID-19. That regular infusion of cash helps us to pay our bills, relieve some of our stress, and allow us a little breathing space in case of a medical or caregiving emergency.
The early impact was astounding. Having steady cash month-to-month energized me and my fellow participants. We met regularly to build our skills, expand our work prospects, and become better workers. With the comfort of knowing some of our basic needs were met, we could brainstorm business projects. We created a cookbook, highlighting recipes from the many countries my colleagues come from, and started working on a food truck business.
We were no longer focused on just getting by, but on thriving. We were improving our prospects in the job market, strengthening our economic future.
And we were no longer just one emergency away from a crisis. Life takes unexpected turns and we can’t account for everything around the corner. If the system worked as it should, workers would be able to budget for an unforeseen crisis–a broken transmission, a sick daycare teacher, or a high utility bill. But the pandemic reminded us that even hardworking people don’t have the resources to do that. Our jobs often don’t pay enough, and existing government programs don’t always help fill the gaps.
That’s where unrestricted cash can be a game-changer–whereas “work requirements” are just a way to keep people from getting support or to tangle them up in red tape if they do.
Critics might say that unrestricted cash makes people lazy, but the opposite was true for me and the thousands of people across the country who have been empowered by cash programs and were able to organize to improve their working conditions. My coworkers already knew the importance of a union in our shop, but cash gave us more time to organize to make it clear why we deserved a seat at the negotiation table. The Child Tax Credit without work requirements also did not prevent people from working, if anything it provided an economic bonus because every $1 invested in parents yielded $10 in economic benefit.
I firmly believe that all workers deserve the freedom and power that cash provides. When life’s unavoidable challenges arrive, our system shouldn’t fail our hardest working people, but should help us advance our careers, build our skills, and create better working conditions–after all, isn’t that the American dream?
Vee has worked in hospitality at the U.S. House of Representatives and the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in Washington DC, and is the Founder of Let’s GO DMV!