City Debit Card Program Gets Leg Up from Radical Politics

Who says radical socialists don’t have a heart?

Apparently no one in Chelsea, as anonymous donors supporting the fringe-idea of a Universal Basic Income for all people stepped up to help fund two months of food payments for the upcoming Chelsea Eats food debit cards, at a cost of $750,000 per month.

City Manager Tom Ambrosino said Chelsea Eats has nothing to do with Universal Basic Income, nor is it “free money” as has been reported in Boston media outlets, but whatever the source of funds, he’ll take it.

“There are some folks who believe in this philosophy that have stepped forward,” he said. “They love the concept of Universal Basic Income and they donated enough money to cover January and February. Right now, we have enough to cover November and December so this should take folks through the winter…I’m not so sure the people I distribute the program to will look at it as Universal Basic Income, but if helps me to get some funding to feed people in an emergency situation, then so be it. I guess it is in some sense, but that isn’t the intention of the City. The whole idea for us is emergency help to get this City through COVID-19.”

The move is a strange twist in the story of the Chelsea Eats program, which is designed to get the City out of the food pantry business and give those needing the pantries dignity by allowing them to use a pre-paid card to go to the grocery store. Ambrosino has been trying to get the City out of the food pantry distributions since August, and has encountered many difficulties in getting the Chelsea Eats off the ground. They will end the pantries on Oct. 30 for good, after having started them in late March.

“We want to stop using money on transportation, packaging and temporary employees,” he said. “You won’t have to stand in an undignified line and lug a big box of food home. You’ll be able to go to the store and use the card there like anything else.”

There are still other private food pantries that will continue, such as the Chelsea Collaborative and St. Luke’s and the Salvation Army, and the City is committed to supporting them.

Most of the Chelsea Eats program is funded by a $1.5 million CARES Act grant, but there have been problems getting it going due to logistical challenges with the pre-paid card.

Ambrosino said it is more complex than anticipated, but for some on the outside, it has been described as “free money,” as the card is a pre-paid Visa and technically can be spent on anything.

However, Ambrosino said he trusts his residents. He said the lottery was highly subscribed to and there was preference given to the poorest residents with the largest families. He said he trusts they will do the right thing with the Chelsea Eats card, and he doesn’t see them going on a spending spree at the liquor store or lottery kiosk.

“Just because they’re poor doesn’t mean they’re irresponsible,” he said. “Is it free money? You can say anything you want. From the City’s perspective, it’s emergency help to get through COVID-19 and we trust them to use the card right.”

The City hopes to get Chelsea Eats off the ground in early November, and it runs at a cost of $750,000 per month. There is a fee from the administrator of under $10,000.

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