Innovative Cash Transfer Program Helped 10,000 Former Prisoners Meet Essential Expenses During Pandemic, Improving Their Feelings of Financial Stability

Contacts: John Hutchins, MDRC, [email protected], 212-340-8604

Bari Samad, Center for Employment Opportunities, [email protected], (347) 266-7461

(September 29, 2021) — Nonprofit research organization MDRC released a new study today showing that the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) successfully implemented an ambitious cash transfer program, the Returning Citizens Stimulus, during the pandemic. More than 10,000 former prisoners in 28 cities were offered three monthly payments totaling up to $2,750 to help them successfully transition back into their communities. Participants reported that the first-of-its-kind program helped them feel more financially stable in the period following incarceration. Most said that they used the funds for essential expenses such as rent, groceries, and clothing, and on personal care to prepare themselves for employment.

Each year in the United States, about 600,000 people are released from state and federal prisons, and millions more are released from local jails. Often with few financial resources, these returning citizens must address their day-to-day needs for food, clothing, and housing; obtain identification and access to medical care; and find employment and reconnect with family. The COVID-19 pandemic made the transition even more difficult, and few returning citizens had access to federal emergency relief funds because they lacked recent work histories or tax returns.

About the Returning Citizens Stimulus Program and MDRC’s Study

In April 2020, the Center for Employment Opportunities—a nonprofit organization that provides services to returning citizens, also known as “reentry services”—launched the Returning Citizens Stimulus program (RCS) to provide returning citizens with immediate cash assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, while also connecting them to reentry support. Participants were eligible for three monthly payments totaling up to $2,750 if they reached milestones set by the reentry provider that could include pursuing employment. The RCS program began as a way of providing emergency cash assistance to CEO clients but was quickly expanded through partnerships with 32 other reentry organizations. It was implemented in 28 cities and provided over $24 million to more than 10,000 returning citizens in 11 months.

The MDRC report describes the program’s implementation and the reentry experiences and outcomes of participants in the five months after they joined the program. These analyses rely on program records, in-depth interviews with participants and staff members, and participant surveys conducted approximately two and five months after enrollment in RCS. The main sample for the study includes individuals who enrolled in RCS in Detroit, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. The study is sponsored by CEO, with funding from Blue Meridian Partners on behalf of the Justice and Mobility Fund.

Key Findings

  • RCS was launched on a large scale with almost no time for planning. Nevertheless, the program operated relatively smoothly overall, a notable achievement, particularly in the context of the pandemic. 
  • Participants reached their milestones at a high rate, so over 90 percent of them received two or three RCS payments for an average total of $2,256.
  • Participants reported that the RCS program helped them feel some level of financial stability in the period following incarceration. Most said that they spent the RCS funds on essential expenses such as rent, groceries, and clothing, and on personal care to prepare themselves for employment.
  • Participants said RCS helped them find, secure, and maintain employment, partly because it was connected to existing reentry employment programs and partly because it gave them money to prepare for working.

“The Center for Employment Opportunities mounted an ambitious program that helped returning citizens during the throes of the pandemic,” said Ivonne Garcia, MDRC research associate and lead author of the report. “These encouraging early findings suggest that the Returning Citizens Stimulus may be a model for assisting returning citizens during the always-difficult reentry period—even after the pandemic has subsided.”

“RCS provides immediate financial support to people returning from incarceration and creates long-term engagements between returning citizens and reentry service providers,” said Sam Schaeffer, Chief Executive Officer of CEO. “Evaluations of programs such as RCS show the potential for making cash assistance an integral and sustainable part of reentry pathways. CEO is actively furthering RCS in a post-pandemic context to advance decarceration efforts through early release, advanced parole, and initiatives such as prosecutor-initiated resentencing.”

Looking Forward

CEO is currently partnering with For the People to bring RCS cash assistance to individuals released from California prisons by prosecutors, an innovation known as prosecutor-initiated resentencing.

A second report from MDRC’s study, scheduled for early 2022, will present findings from a nonexperimental analysis of the effects of RCS on criminal justice outcomes, such as reincarceration.

For more information, read Paving the Way Home: An Evaluation of the Returning Citizens Stimulus Program, by Ivonne Garcia, Margaret Hennessy, Erin J. Valentine, Jed Teres, and Rachel Sander.

MDRC is committed to finding solutions to some of the most difficult problems facing the nation—from reducing poverty and bolstering economic mobility to improving public education and college graduation rates. MDRC designs promising new interventions, evaluates existing programs using the highest research standards, and provides technical assistance to build better programs and deliver effective interventions on a large scale.

The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) provides immediate, effective, and comprehensive employment services exclusively to people recently released from incarceration. CEO currently operates in over 30 cities and is dedicated to ensuring that justice-impacted job-seekers have opportunities to achieve social and economic mobility.