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Why more aid groups are putting cash in people's hands

NOEL KING, HOST:

Charities try to answer this question - what is the best way to help people? Could it be as simple as just give them money? Here's Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: OK. Reason No. 1 is a bit of a gimme - it's the pandemic. The success of the stimulus checks passed to deal with the pandemic were a big part in getting people comfortable with the idea of giving out money.

MARY BOGLE: What people also saw was people standing in those food lines early in the pandemic.

BISAHA: Mary Bogle from the Urban Institute says it was a strange sight at a time when people needed to stay away from each other to avoid getting sick.

BOGLE: And that made no sense to the average American. You're standing next to people in a line to get a box of food. What?

BISAHA: It especially didn't make sense for Michael Wilkerson (ph) in D.C. He's got several different medical conditions, including hypothyroidism, which caused him to recently lose about 90 pounds. Wilkerson needed new clothes, but he didn't feel safe going to traditional charities in person.

MICHAEL WILKERSON: With my condition, I didn't want to be around certain people if they weren't masking up and doing what they're supposed to do.

BISAHA: The second reason for giving out cash is that it's just fast. Direct deposit and apps like Venmo make it quick and simple to send money. Wilkerson was leery when he heard a charity called THRIVE East of the River was giving people in need $5,500, but he decided to sign up anyway. The money showed up in his account ahead of schedule.

WILKERSON: So I was surprised. The money was there, and I didn't even know it. And I just happened to check my account, and it's - whoa, look at this amount, you know what I mean? (Laughter).

BISAHA: Charities in the D.C. area have given away about $26 million in direct cash aid during the pandemic. Wilkerson used the money he got to pay off some credit card debt, buy those new clothes and new kitchen equipment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING ON KEYBOARD)

BISAHA: At 59, Wilkerson needs the rack of kitchen supplies nearby to keep him from bending down and the blender to make fast meals.

WILKERSON: I'm not getting any younger, so I need to make my apartment more conducive to my living.

BISAHA: And there's reason No. 3 - Mary Bogle from the Urban Institute says people often know best what kind of help they specifically need, and money lets them get it.

BOGLE: You give people cash, they can just go and make their own choices. There's no barrier on cash.

BISAHA: She says letting people make their own decisions is a big change from how charities used to operate.

BOGLE: They're moving away - and it's a phenomenon called trust-based philanthropy - from that old, you know, trope-filled modus operandi that says, if I give somebody cash, they're going to go use it on drugs. There are studies that show that's not true.

BISAHA: And giving people like Wilkerson a sense that they're trustworthy is its own reason to hand out money.

WILKERSON: I know when I don't have cash on hand, I can't - I don't feel worthy, you know? I don't feel worthy to do anything. It's like whatever was looming over me when I didn't have cash, as soon as cash came, that's why it went away.

BISAHA: This trend of giving out cash is growing and not just after a crisis, either. Dozens of U.S. cities are starting up programs where they give needy families a guaranteed income every month. Now, it's also worth mentioning sometimes cash is not the best answer. Matthew Chouest is a pastor in Golden Meadows, a town in the Louisiana bayou, not far from where Hurricane Ida made landfall in late August.

MATTHEW CHOUEST: You know, it's just like a war zone.

BISAHA: Chouest says cash doesn't help when there are few places left standing to spend it.

CHOUEST: Money doesn't do you no good. You can't eat money.

BISAHA: Another argument against giving out cash is that it might discourage people from working. But the momentum for cash is growing - to solve both immediate problems in a crisis and also to address systemic problems like income inequality.

For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HOPKINS' "LOST IN THOUGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.