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The Bridge Project comes to Milwaukee to help break cycle of childhood poverty

Image courtesy of The Bridge Project
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The Bridge Project is Milwaukee’s first unconditional cash program for moms and their babies, nurturing them from pregnancy through the first two years of life.

In the United States one in five children under five live in poverty. In Wisconsin, about one in seven children lives in poverty and Milwaukee has the second-highest poverty rate among the top 50 most populated American cities.

A new program is working to break the generational cycle of stress and poverty and put cash into the hands of those who need it most. Launched in New York in 2021 by The Monarch Foundaiton, The Bridge Project invests in early childhood through unconditional cash transfers. The program serves low to moderate-income pregnant people to make sure they have adequate financial stability in the first thousand days of their baby’s life.

For the first time, The Bridge Project is expanding outside of New York and offering the program here in Milwaukee thanks to a partnership with the Zilber Family Foundation (ZFF).

As ZFF executive director Gina Stilp explains, "Our mission is to advance social and economic opportunity, and we do most of our work here in Milwaukee ... But this is a bit of a deviation for us. It's the first time that we have partnered with an organization that is getting cash with no strings attached directly into the hands of residents of our neighborhoods."

The ZFF sees this partnership as "working on two sides of the same coin." The primary goal is to make sure individuals not only have financial security, but autonomy and dignity in using resources to help them be stable. A second goal for the ZFF is to work with other nonprofit organizations in the greater Milwaukee community that can wrap around other kinds of support such as housing, economic development or health and wellness for the mother and child.

The Bridge Project is looking for participants 18 years or older, 23 weeks pregnant or less, with an annual household income of less than $39,000 USD living in the 53204, 53205, 53206 or 53215 zip codes with priority in Lindsay Heights, Clarke Square or Layton Boulevard West neighborhoods.
Zilber Family Foundation
The Bridge Project is looking for participants 18 years or older, 23 weeks pregnant or less, with an annual household income of less than $39,000 USD living in the 53204, 53205, 53206 or 53215 zip codes with priority in Lindsay Heights, Clarke Square or Layton Boulevard West neighborhoods.

The neighborhoods that the ZFF typically focuses on have an average child poverty rate of over 40% according to Stilp, and the expenses of a newborn child often stress the household income levels of residents. She says that they see this partnership with the Bridge Project as an opportunity to get money directly to low-income people and give them an opportunity to catch their breath at a turning point in their lives when there's a new baby.

The Bridge Project is looking to support 100 pregnant people in Milwaukee who are 18 years or older and 23 weeks along or less. "The idea there is that we'll be able to connect mom with some prenatal resources before baby's born and get a prenatal stipend to her just so that everyone's starting out on the right foot," notes Stilp.

The project is also targeting the neighborhoods where the ZFF has worked, which includes Lindsay Heights, Clarke Square, and Layton Boulevard West and the zip codes that encompass those communities (53204, 53206, and 53215). Families also need to have a household annual income of less than $39,000.

Applications were opened April 10 and there are currently 30 families in the verification process. The application is open on a rolling bases and you can learn more and apply here.

Stilp believes that unconditional cash with no strings attached is a simple principle that will lead to economic empowerment. "There's a lot of paperwork, a lot of verification, there's just a bit of loss of dignity in the process of applying for and continuing to report on your poverty. And so this allows trust building between an organization and low-income women in particular. It allows mom to feel empowered," she explains.

Program participants will receive:

  • $1,125 one-time, upfront prenatal stipend
  • $750 per month for the first 15 months of program participation
  • $375 per month for the remaining 9 months of program participation

Stilp notes that the current data from the New York Bridge Project shows that a large part of the unconditional cash is spent on basic needs — food, formula, rent, childcare, transportation and more. But there's also more opportunities for families to save for emergencies, a future home, enrolling in additional educational opportunities for themselves, or even going on a vacation that many families don't have the flexibility or funds for. No matter what the participants choose to spend the money on, it's all about improving quality of life and making sure families can obtain financial stability.
"And with that financial stability that they'll see some social benefit around the health and wellness of their families," adds Stilp. "We're really interested in building bridges between the participants of The Bridge Project and the many nonprofit organizations that already exist in Milwaukee, and we've just been overwhelmed by the positive response."

She notes that another major opportunity the partnership with The Bridge Project brings to Milwaukee is to ignite the opportunity to have a conversation.

"For us, the conversation is around first and foremost what are the assumptions we have about poor people and why do we have them? And then secondly, I hope at the end of this that we can prove that by giving moms autonomy, giving families autonomy to make financial decisions about their families, that we'll see success and that this will spur additional investment and perhaps break down some of those walls on how families can access the resources that they need just to survive," says Stilp.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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