Washington D.C. Sent $10,800 to Single Moms; It Didn't Work Out as Expected

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Not everybody in poverty is irresponsible and makes all the wrong choices. There are a lot of different paths that people walk, and until we know somebody's story, we should withhold judgment. 


That's as true for people trying to help others out as it is for those inclined to look askance at people. There is no magic bullet that will help get people on their feet, so creating a one-size-fits-all policy will never work. A few people might be helped--and that is good--but many others will wind up no better off or even further in the hole. 

The Washington Post has a story about an experimental program aimed at helping single moms. They gave 132 of them $10,800 in lump sums or in $900/month payments, no strings attached. 

Most of the moms took the money in lump sums, which is already a red flag. For people with no proven financial skills that kind of windfall is likely to be blown quickly. 

And for some, at least, that is exactly what happened

All 132 mothers had to choose whether they wanted 12 monthly payments of $900 or the entire amount immediately in a lump sum, a unique feature of D.C.’s pilot. About 75 percent chose the lump sum — which was better for those also receiving government benefits, for whom monthly payments from the pilot were more likely to be flagged as additional income, potentially affecting their eligibility, said David Lloyd, the deputy chief of programs at Martha’s Table.

The Washington Post spoke to several mothers throughout the year. Some used the funds to set up their first savings account or buy baby formula. Others used it to live the lives they had always dreamed for their families, helping cushion their savings to buy a new home — or just live large for a week: a new hairdo and a trip to Miami with new outfits every day for the children.


There's been a lot of focus in the conservative media on one mom in particular whom the Washington Post featured, and rightly so. She provides an outrageous example of how this kind of generosity and good intentions can go off the rails. I will share with you a bit about her and then offer my thoughts. 

Here's her story from the WaPo:

For Canethia Miller, 27, being accepted into the pilot felt like a stroke of good fortune: She had missed the application deadline but submitted her paperwork anyway and eventually made it off the waiting list.

She was a stay-at-home mom when her third child, Nazir, was born in summer 2022, making things work financially through a host of public benefits. Her two-bedroom apartment in Anacostia is subsidized, and with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) as her only income, her rent payments are about $120 a month. Food stamps and WIC, a program that offers nutritional support for low-income mothers, offered another lifeline for Miller to provide for her infant and two older children, ages 5 and 8. But making these benefits last through the month is another story.

“Groceries last us the first three weeks of the month, then it’s trying to figure out the last week of my benefits,” she said. “It lasts, but it cuts close.”

By August 2022, Miller was looking for affordable day care for Nazir and part-time work, but she struggled to find a job with hours flexible enough to get her other children to and from school. She had pursued a bachelor’s degree in social work but paused her own education to focus on her growing family.

Then came the pilot. After setting aside some of the money for essential expenses, she made a major decision on how to spend the bulk of it.

“Some of it I just left alone. The other side is, I wanted to blow it. I wanted to have fun,” she said. “[My kids] got to experience something I would never have been able to do if I didn’t have that money.”

The five-day, $6,000 trip to Miami was a dramatic upgrade from the Ocean City and Virginia Beach visits that Miller’s family was used to. Joined by the children’s father, a boat tour exposed them to million-dollar homes and luxury yachts. Her kids went to a dinosaur museum and saw animals in Florida’s swamps they had never seen before. Miller still talks about trying Benihana, a Japanese steak and sushi restaurant, for the first time.

Some of the money went toward preparations for the trip: new clothes, shoes, gadgets and toys. “Every outfit they wore was new,” she added.

In what she called a rare moment of self-indulgence, Miller spent $180 ahead of the vacation to get her own hair and nails done, a glow-up from her usual inexpensive short, dyed style. Her eyes light up when she swipes through an album of photos from their trip.

“Do you know how good I look in this picture?” she exclaimed. “I didn’t have to look like a working, stressed mom.”

But Miller says the trip served a greater purpose. On a normal day, she tries to encourage her kids to work hard academically by showing them videos of students graduating early or being praised for doing well in school as the key to success. At Miami Beach, they got to see luxury firsthand.

She also wants to set a good example: Miller says she was never taught about financial literacy in school or by her parents. But the infusion of cash, and financial literacy courses offered through the program, has helped her with some firsts. She opened up a savings account, aiming to keep at least $50 in it. She used the remaining $4,000 or so from the pilot in a matter of months, mostly on bills and a used car.


OK, it is beyond easy to hold up Miller and exclaim, "Aha!," see? And that was my first instinct--a quick hit on an outrage. 

But honestly, what is the point? We already know that government and nonprofits do a lot of useless things that leave many of their clients no better off. And besides, there were some much brighter stories to tell. We need not even condemn Miller's extravagance, however unwise it was, because what do you expect of a poor person getting a windfall? Do the same with a teenager and you will likely get similar results. 

No, what I want to talk about is the failure to meet people where they are if you want to help them. More often than not, people are poor because they have never learned how not to be poor. The greatest gift ever given to a person is to be born middle-class and to learn the bourgeois values that make people resilient. 

People living in generational poverty have never lived in a world where they learn these values or see them work for real people. Just handing out cash doesn't change that one little bit. 

However substantial $10,800 is, it really isn't that much when you are living off of it. It can evaporate in a minute if you don't know how to manage money. 

I say this as somebody who is both middle class and who has a terrible track record managing money. My wife does that because I am no good at it. 

I don't want to provide excuses for people's bad choices, but I also don't believe that berating people helps them either. If our goal is to help others then what they need is a support structure that meets them where they are--as human beings, not clients. 


That is why I think government programs are a horrible substitute for actual communities. Bureaucracies treat you as a number or a client; a church group treats you as a person. 

If we genuinely want to transform lives, no "program" will do it long term. 

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