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“Goal Achievement, Financial Freedom, and A Dream Come True”: USES’s S.T.E.P Program in Review

At the heart of the work that United South End Settlements strives for is the idea that we can harness the power of our diverse community to bring about change and disrupt the systemic cycles that hold us back from reaching our potential. It is through this lens that the S.T.E.P (Striving Towards Economic Prosperity) Program, USES’s Guaranteed Income Pilot emerged. Guaranteed Income has sharply entered the discussion of the non-profit and social services landscape as both a practical method of empowering communities and a potential policy solution in the struggle to combat poverty. Within the framework of prior successful Guaranteed Income programs such as Chelsea (Chelsea Eats) and Cambridge (Cambridge Rise) in mind, USES (United South End Settlements) developed our S.T.E.P program to launch in the fall of 2021 and enrolled 16 families to receive 800.00 dollars for 18 months. Central to the program's ambition was to ensure that our participants had agency over their own journey by prioritizing that any grant given in the program was unrestricted. Families know what is best for them, and S.T.E.P was meant to alleviate some of the day-to-day stress and allow families to focus on achieving their long-desired goals. These past 18 months have been a tremendous period of growth, reflection, and dedication for our participating families, as everyone has worked towards what they set out to accomplish at the start of the program. Their stories have both internally and externally shaped the way the USES community understands our organizational mission, and S.T.E.P has empowered our participants to grasp upward mobility for themselves.

A primary objective of USES’s S.T.E.P program was to understand how consistent payments helped families better understand their social-emotional well-being. Through guaranteed income, we hoped to give clarity to our participants to pursue time and ventures with loved ones and encourage opportunities for self-care and promotion. We measured this by assessing our participants’ stress levels, consistently asking them to reflect on their concerns about their children’s behavioral patterns. What USES saw over the program was steady progress in lowering concern among parents, with 80 percent of our parents reporting “no to low stress” about their children’s behavior during our last assessment in March 2023. Additionally, through conversations with participants, we found that many were able to spend more quality time together, and families could afford to sign up their children for extracurriculars, sports and even plan a vacation. One participant described paying “for the children’s karate, basketball, gymnastics, and swim with that (the S.T.E.P) money.” Another participant made sure to point out that they were able to visit the Dominican Republic with their family for the first time in six years to see relatives, while another S.T.E.P parent felt peace of mind knowing that “my children were stable and eating all their meals, and they feel like they are truly healthy.”

One of the incredible statistical impacts of our S.T.E.P program has been the dramatic improvement in parents’ emotional well-being regarding their financial situation. As previously mentioned, the ultimate goal of the S.T.E.P was to enhance our participants’ long-term financial health while providing short-term relief from anxiety and stress related to everyday financial burdens. At the onset of the program, 50 percent of participants acknowledged that they “very often/fairly often” experienced stress or anxiety in their daily lives. Within 18 months, that number among enrolled participants dropped to zero, while our surveyed control group (not receiving any S.T.E.P grant funds) saw an increase from 18 percent at the start of surveying in the fall of 2021 to 38 percent in January 2023. This outcome was far from certain, considering the fact that other successful guaranteed income programs such as Chelsea Eats, which through their study of the program, found that there were no significant statistical differences between enrolled participants and their control group counterparts when it came to self-reported mental/physical health improvements, according to the study published by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

This outcome is further supported by testimony given by S.T.E.P participants. For example, one of our participants described her experience in the program as “a dream come true… it has significantly reduced my stress and anxiety around finances. I am forever grateful for this opportunity.” For another participant, S.T.E.P enabled them to “reach goals that I never thought I could achieve. I am now legally in this country and started my studies towards a degree.” Balancing family life and personal ambitions also became far easier to manage for those enrolled in S.T.E.P. When asked to assess the outcome of the goals they set for themselves, one participant reflected on just how far they had come in 18 months. “I did really well,” they described, “I am almost done with nursing school, and I was able to cut back on my work hours to continue school while having three kids. I was also able to manage to pay the bills and maintain my household with the help of S.T.E.P.”

Families ultimately know what their needs and dreams are better than anyone else. With S.T.E.P grants being unrestricted for our families, we wanted to empower participants to think long-term and address what they needed to address with the funds. As we have come to the end of our pilot program, we continue to see participants meet their goals and build for the future. As one participant acknowledged, “My family and I have truly benefited greatly from the S.T.E.P Program. My children are happy and healthier, and I am so relieved to have support to make ends meet.” That long-term approach to sustainability is highlighted further by an account from another participant, “The program has truly helped me to focus on developing my budget and work on action steps that have helped me pay more attention to my finances. It has helped me become more conscious of my spending, helping me separate my needs and my wants…I was able to pay off my debts in a timely manner.” The Two-generational impact of our S.T.E.P Pilot Program has been profound and in conjunction with the dedication and ambition of our participants to achieve their families’ and personal goals. S.T.E.P. has proven that guaranteed income can have a powerful outcome in enhancing families’ long-term prospects, especially when the incredible people making decisions for their families can do so without restriction. By providing the capacity for self-agency and offering further two-generational support and programming, our S.T.E.P families are striving towards economic prosperity.

S.T.E.P Statements: All quotes are directly from participant surveys and interviews conducted by USES Staff Members and Volunteers, and all participants were granted anonymity:

“It helped me bring most of my bills up to date, and to be able to share a little more activities with my children.”

“It helped me to buy furniture when we got to our place. I paid for the children's karate, basketball, gymnastics, and swimming with that money. It also helped me focus on doing well in school instead of worrying about getting money. I was able to make the honor society and finish my Bachelors.”

“The extra money has helped me pay off my outstanding rent balance, I was able to put money towards my tax audit. My extra funds were a huge help as far as bills and maintenance needs for my vehicle are concerned. My daughter was also able to get new sneakers for her to play in for her AAU TEAM.

“I was able to keep up and pay off all bills and maintain and increase savings. We were able to buy essential stuff like a computer, we were also able to go back home to Dominican Republic after 6 years, see the family and say goodbye to my gramma before she passes. I was able to help others, every month I took $100 from the $800 and put it away to give to someone in need. I was able to work less. Before STEP I was leaving one job and going to another side job to be able to afford things like Camp Hale, clothes, sport, car maintenance and things like that. I was able to do all that without stressing.”

“This program has been such a dream come true and made it so easy for me to save and made me more comfortable with getting things that I need without stressing the impact it would have on my budgeting. This program helped me through an unexpected expense (my car being involved in a hit and run...having to pay the deductible, for a rental car and purchase another vehicle during used car shortages). It has significantly reduced my stress and anxiety around finances. I am forever grateful for this opportunity."

“I have been able to cover monthly costs for my family including bills, activities for children. The STEP program also helped me save money and lower my credit card debts. It has been so helpful for my family.”

“It's helped pay for getaways with my kids. I have also been able to save more, which has been good!”

“The program has truly helped me to focus on developing my budget, and work on action steps that have helped me pay more attention to my finances. Because of this I have enrolled in classes on trading, which is giving me the skills to learn how to invest, sell, and trade to better my own financial future. It has helped me become more conscious of my spending and what is necessary, helping me to separate my needs and my wants. One of the things I did was I was able to begin to pay off debts in a timely manner, as well as allowing me to take a vacation with my daughter!”

“Being a part of STEP has helped me in a lot of ways, for example I was able to pay off my debt.”

“Personally, I reached goals that I never thought I could achieve, now I am legally in this country, and I started my studies. My children are stable and eat all their meals and they feel that they are truly healthy. I feel that because of having participated in this program I surpassed all the goals I set for myself, and I have financial freedom.”

“STEP honestly has helped tremendously, and I hope this program continues or comes back around for my children.”

“I was able to play for my daughter's dance classes, out of state trips and pay down some of my most used credit cards.”

“My family and I have truly benefited greatly from the STEP program. My children are happy and healthier. I am relieved to have support to make ends meet.”

“Recently I was able to obtain my learner’s permit and eventually my driver’s license. Through STEP, I was able to purchase a car, which in turn allowed me to be more active in my daughter’s life. Since the car purchase, we have been able to go out together more and are planning some trips in the future.”

This report was written by Tim Fitzgerald, USES’s Family Mobility Coordinator. A special thanks to Zachary Couzens, a Boston College PULSE Volunteer, for assisting in the conducting of participant interviews. Additional thanks to Marcie Bilodeau for her data collection throughout the program, and to Melody Valdes and Kaiti Coffin for their key roles in program facilitation and assisting in the drafting of this report.

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