Hope Heikes has always been supportive of the proposed Baltimore Baby Bonus Fund. But since giving birth to her first son less than a month ago, she’s gained a new appreciation for the potential inflow of $1,000 into the pockets of families who have or adopt a child.

“It’s been the most intense three weeks of my life,” Heikes said. “There are so many upfront costs and unexpected costs.”

Heikes is entering motherhood from a more comfortable position than some. A speech language pathologist, she gets eight weeks of maternity leave, more than half of which is fully paid. Her husband, Macon, works in finance and gets three months of fully paid leave. They have family support and don’t live paycheck-to-paycheck.

Still, Heikes described her time since giving birth as “stressful, emotional, beautiful, tiring, expensive.” She knows how much more intense it would be if she also had to add the stress of not being able to pay her bills or feed her child — the reality of many low-income families in Baltimore.

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The Maryland Child Alliance hopes to address that problem with the Baltimore Baby Bonus, a proposed charter amendment that, if approved by city voters in November, would provide one-time payments of at least $1,000 to parents upon the birth or adoption of a child. Last Monday, the city board of elections certified it had more than the 10,000 signatures needed to appear on the ballot.

“I think any amount of money really counts,” Heikes said. “Any way we can kind of reduce stress and improve the resources parents have right when a baby is born is going to make some sort of an impact.”

In 2004, voters passed all but one of 17 ballot measures. Since then, they have approved all 126 questions that have appeared on their general election ballots.

According to the Maryland Child Alliance, the amendment would mandate that the baby bonus become a part of the city’s budget beginning July 1, 2025, with payments potentially beginning then.

The proposal mimics the Baltimore Children & Youth Fund, which was established via a charter amendment that received support from 80% of voters in 2016, according to the fund’s website. The fund receives “an annual appropriation that is at least $0.03 on every $100 of assessed or assessable value of all property” in Baltimore.

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Tying the funding to property values “inflation-proofs” the fund, said Nate Golden, president of the Maryland Child Alliance and a high school math teacher. He added that the language would allow the city to dole out more than $1,000 per family, but not less.

According to the Alliance, there are about 7,000 babies born each year in Baltimore, translating to a $7 million annual cost. Parents would need to reside in Baltimore to be eligible for the payment.

Golden said his organization recognizes a $1,000, one-time payment “isn’t enough.” But he views it as a way to fill in gaps for vulnerable families, as family incomes fall when parents welcome a new baby.

The payout likely wouldn’t go far with medical bills. For example, the average cost for a vaginal delivery in a Maryland hospital in 2023 was $11,362, jumping to $14,306 for C-sections, which is separate from doctors’ bills.

But the money, if distributed by the city unconditionally, could still help. Heikes, for example, has had to supplement feeding her son with formula, so that’s what her allowance could have gone to. Parents could use the money to catch up on debt or pay rent for the first month of their baby’s life. They could stock up on essentials, like diapers, or use it for expensive one-time purchases, like strollers and cribs.

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That flexibility is essential said Dr. Mona Hanna, the pediatrician who exposed the Flint water crisis. Hanna, a professor at Michigan State University, is now the director of Rx Kids, which inspired the Baltimore Baby Bonus. The program provides all pregnant people in Flint with $1,500 after the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, and then $500 a month once the baby is born for the first year of life.

“Unconditional cash allows families the freedom and choice to meet their own needs as they see fit. Some families are good with food, but they need help with transportation. Other families can pay their rent, but they don’t know how to pay for diapers,” Hanna said. “Everybody has different needs. When we dictate what families want, that’s very paternalistic.”

According to the program’s website, since launching in January, Rx Kids has given out over $2 million to 832 enrolled families. The program is funded by a public-private partnership, using federal money earmarked for cash assistance.

There are no income eligibility requirements, as would be the case if Baltimore voters approve the bonus fund. Still, 343 of the families enrolled in Rx Kids make $10,000 or less a year.

Families can receive the money through direct deposit or a prepaid debit card, the same options Golden foresees being available for the Baltimore fund. Hanna said about 70% of families use direct deposit.

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Most participants enrolled during pregnancy, but Michigan also records each birth as part of the birth certificate process and turns that data over to Rx Kids. Additionally, as a “last ditch effort,” the program sends a welcome card and onesies to parents of newborns to encourage them to sign up.

“We are at about 100% uptake rate of the program,” Hanna said. “Everybody who should be in the program is in the program.”

Zac Blanchard, who beat out Eric Costello in his bid for the Democratic nomination in the City Council’s 11th District, endorsed the Baltimore Baby Bonus Fund during his campaign. He foresees enrolling in the program potentially becoming a part of having a baby at the hospital, like signing a Social Security form.

The Maryland Child Alliance is working on an implementation plan for the program, which the city could choose to use if voters approve the charter amendment. Some details are still to be determined, such as the eligibility for adoptions. Blanchard and Golden believe those adopting a child of any age should qualify for the bonus, not just infants.

The city already gives out cash to some families through the Baltimore Young Families Success Fund. The two-year pilot program provides 200 participants with $1,000 a month. Participants are child caretakers between the ages of 18 and 24 with annual incomes at or below 300% of the federal poverty line, based on family size. CASH Campaign of Maryland administers the program.

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According to a report released by Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, in the first year of the Baltimore Young Families Success Fund, enrolled families were doing better than their peers in the control group in the areas of income, education, housing and employment.

Scott’s office said the pilot program makes plain the value of investing in young, vulnerable families.

“At the local level we currently don’t have the resources to make that type of support permanent, which is why we’re advocating for the federal government to look at the success of guaranteed income pilots like ours to make it possible for more Americans,” Scott’s office said in a statement. “Now that the ‘Baby Bonus’ has achieved enough signatures to be included on the ballot, the Mayor looks forward to having a robust discussion about the merits of their program and whether it would actually make sense for the City of Baltimore.”

Should the charter amendment pass, Golden has his eye on the future. At the state level, Maryland Child Alliance wants to lobby for $250 monthly recurring payments from birth to 18-years-old, though the proposal is still a work-in-progress.

“We really hope that this sends a message that, one, this is popular; Baltimore wants to give payments to parents,” Golden said. “But our second goal is universal monthly payments at the state level.”

Baltimore Banner reporter Emily Sullivan contributed to this story.

About the Education Hub

This reporting is part of The Banner’s Education Hub, community-funded journalism that provides parents with resources they need to make decisions about how their children learn. Read more.