A group of Baltimore teachers want to write a one-time $1,000 cash payment for all parents who adopt or give birth into the city charter to reduce the effects of child poverty.

The Maryland Child Alliance group crafted the Baltimore Baby Bonus Fund in April 2023. If they gather enough signatures in support of the measure by July 22, voters will decide its fate on the November ballot.

Nate Golden, a math teacher at Forest Park High School, said the campaign started by tapping into personal connections — mainly with other local educators.

“When you are a teacher, you see the impact that child poverty has daily, especially if you’re a teacher in Baltimore City schools where the majority of our students live in poverty,” he said. “And when you’re seeing that daily, and you’re seeing our legislators fail to act, it was a call that, ‘Well, if they’re not going to do something, we have to.’”

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After a year of campaigning at community events, the charter has garnered over 12,500 signatures. And it’s won the endorsement of groups like the Baltimore Teachers’ Union and Pro-Choice Maryland.

“Our position, generally, is that we embrace and we support our rank-and-file members’ advocacy work — particularly when it comes to social justice and education advocacy,” said Nathan Feller, the Baltimore Teachers’ Union leader of member engagement. “And that’s really what the Baltimore Baby Bonus is. It is educator-led; it is community-member-led; it is directly impactful.”

Golden said he and the two other teachers who created the Baby Bonus were inspired by a similar program launched this year in Flint, Michigan. The privately-funded initiative gave $7,500 to some parents — starting with a $1,500 investment midway through pregnancy and then $500 payments each month for the first year.

Recent studies show that a cash infusion early-on in a child’s life can offset the negative consequences of poverty — like delayed academic achievement and poor health outcomes.

“There’s a limit to how much you can accomplish through a charter amendment. And so the idea is that if you’re going to spend a limited amount of funds, where are you going to get the most bang for your buck?” Golden said. “And all the research shows, the earlier that we invest in children, the more it pays off.”

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Universal, direct, unrestricted: the Baby Bonus details

The $1,000 amount seemed the most feasible, Golden said. With around 7,000 babies born each year, that would total $7 million annually — which is less than 1% of the city’s $4.4 billion budget.

Charter amendments can’t detail funding structure or implementation details. Those are up to the city council to decide, if the measure is adopted by voters.

“But this does not raise property taxes,” Golden said. “And while it doesn’t sound like a lot, and it definitely doesn’t cost the city a lot, it can be a big difference in the lives of the children of our city.”

Part of that impact comes from the universal design of the Baby Bonus.

“That’s definitely a very common question that we get, especially with well-meaning people who are asking like, ‘Why does it not just go to the most disadvantaged, or the people who are living under the poverty line?’” said Emily Yu, one of the Baby Bonus founders and an English teacher at Western High School.

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Yu said that many policies aimed at supporting low-income parents and children often miss those most in-need because of strict eligibility or application requirements.

“And we ultimately find that it is better policy to include everybody than bend over backwards spending money and time trying to figure out a good system to catch all those who are in need,” she said.

Daniel Hatcher is a law professor at the University of Baltimore and an expert in welfare and child poverty. He said universal aid programs have costs and benefits.

“The cons of that is if there’s limited money, then it’s spreading it more thinly, rather than getting the money to those who most need it,” he said. “The pros is that everybody often needs assistance. And if everybody has access, it can make it a more accepted and popular program, so it’s more likely to continue.”

But Hatcher agrees that the fewer barriers there are to accessing the funds, the more effective the program will be.

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That’s also why the Maryland Child Alliance is hoping City Council members allow the payment to be unrestricted — so parents can spend the money on what they need most.

“A new baby creates a very high-need situation for a short amount of time,” said Julia Ellis, the third creator of the Baby Bonus amendment. “They might need to spend the money on transportation; they might need to spend it on supplementing food that month. They might need the money to cover part of their rent.”

Hatcher said his only critique of the Baby Bonus proposal is that it’s too short-lived.

“If it was monthly, it would be even more helpful. Difficulties don’t go away,” he said. “But for many individuals, if they can get through a temporary period of hardship, they can get back on their feet and stay above water.”

Golden said that the Maryland Child Alliance’s advocacy won’t stop if the Baby Bonus makes it on the ballot. The group started by lobbying for policies at the state and local level in 2021.

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“These payments are really cost-effective, but they’re not sufficient,” he said. “And we will continue to call on our legislators at the state and city level to do something. Our organizing power is not going anywhere.”

This story is published as part of the Baltimore News Collaborative, a project exploring the challenges and successes experienced by young people in Baltimore. The collaborative is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. News members of the collaborative retain full editorial control.