What’s in $50?

This is a question that Ari Berenbaum thinks about often. Berenbaum, the owner of Ninth Street Bakery, also runs the Durham Neighbors Program, a grassroots organization he founded in the February of 2021 that provides a microdonation of $50 a month to 100 Durham residents. Early in the pandemic, he’d begun handing out free lunches at the bakery whenever someone walked in and needed one. (Since then, neighboring restaurant Luna Rotisserie has taken on a version of that initiative, providing 20 free lunches a day.)

“It became clear that yes, folks need food, but they also just need money for basic expenses,” Berenbaum says, reflecting on those first few months. “I really believe in universal basic income, so I was just like, how can the bakery make this happen?”

Until November, about 90 percent of that monthly $5,000 in donations was funded through bakery revenue, with the remaining 10 percent footed by other local businesses and a handful of individual donors. Relief came around Thanksgiving last year when Berenbaum connected over social media with two locals who now help increase the program’s visibility. Now, thanks to the work of volunteers Nicole Cranley and Amanda Wicks, community contributions fund almost 50 percent of the microdonations.

“The program is all about narrowing the gap between donors and recipients,” Berenbaum says. Person-to-person giving is the most “impactful, swift, and meaningful” type of assistance, and it makes community members more cognizant of the issues their neighbors are facing.”

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, 50 bucks, what will that buy you?’ but if your budget for things is very low each month, $50 proportionally is—for you and I, it could be hundreds and hundreds of dollars,” Berenbaum says.

And with more mainstream philanthropic models, he says it can be unclear “how much money actually gets to the frontlines of folks that are in sometimes desperate need for money for basic necessities” after overhead costs are deducted from donations.

Donating time and expertise to the program is also valuable, he says, adding there is a volunteer need for things like signing up to assist members with job hunting, setting up health care, and navigating public services. Folks can also help out by sharing the program’s social media posts, which Cranley says have ambition beyond fundraising.”

“We’re not just trying to raise money, but also educate our followers about what we can do financially to better support our community through person-to-person giving,” Cranley says. “Let’s dispel this idea that it’s just ‘free handouts.’”

Founded by a family of activists, Ninth Street Bakery originally opened on 9th Street in 1981. Durham Neighbors, Berenbaum says, aligns with the deep-rooted social mission of the bakery.

“I think Ninth Street Bakery is kind of a holdover from another era in Durham, before all this burgeoning development happened,” Berenbaum says. “Durham is actually two, in many ways.”

Natasha Adams was one of Durham Neighbors’ first members; she signed up after learning about the program from a local mutual aid group. When all three of her kids came down with COVID-19 at the same time, she was forced to quit her job and didn’t have money to pay for rent and other basic necessities.

“I had no gas, no Pampers, no wipes,” Adams says. “[Durham Neighbors] helped contribute so I could make sure [my children] get what they need. It’s just really been a help because it’s very hard out here, especially being a single parent.”

In addition to the monthly $50, Durham Neighbors has an emergency fund for members experiencing family or health crises. When Adams’s son died last year, she says, the program gave her extra money to help cover funeral costs.

Much of Durham Neighbors’ social media content revolves around the concept of a universal basic income (UBI), sometimes also known as guaranteed income: a consistent, government-guaranteed payment with no strings attached, meant to provide all citizens with a basic standard of living. It’s not a new concept, but due to widespread financial hardship brought on by the pandemic, it is becoming an increasingly salient idea. A recent New York Times article reported that private programs are currently piloting guaranteed income programs in more than 17 states, distributing more than $25 million a year to over 7,000 families, and evidence from previous experiments shows that it’s an effective model.

When the city of Stockton, California, wrapped up a two-year UBI program that provided 125 residents with $500 a month, participants showed improvements in physical and mental health as well as increased employment, counter to critics’ arguments that stipends reduce the incentive to work. In January, the City of Durham joined in on the momentum, launching Excel, a pilot program that will provide $500 a month to 129 formerly incarcerated individuals over the course of the next year.

Modeled after the Stockton program, Excel was organized by local nonprofit StepUp Durham and is primarily funded by a $500,000 grant from national UBI advocate Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. Participants must have been incarcerated at some point after November 2016 and have income at or below 60 percent of the area median income.

Berenbaum says the Durham Neighbors Program uses an honors system in its intake process; members are asked to identify the things they’re struggling to pay for but don’t have to submit any financial documents.

Durham Neighbors member Leigh Ann Shore has been working overtime as a cashier and wasn’t available for a phone interview—“I get home and basically fall into bed,” she wrote in a text—but she sent an email detailing her experience with the program.

Even though she has a daughter, Shore wrote, she never received the now-expired federal child tax credit. The monthly microdonations have made a world of difference in providing for her child and paying her rent.

As the program’s visibility has grown, so has its waitlist, which now totals around 60 people.

Berenbaum says Durham Neighbors’ most immediate goal is to move people off the waitlist; the bakery is committed to contributing at least $2,500 a month, so if sustaining monthly donations surpass the remaining $2,500 needed to support the existing 100 members, he can bring more people into the program. Individuals can contribute one-time donations or sign up as monthly sustainers on the Durham Neighbors website.

Berenbaum also encourages other local businesses to collaborate with the program. So far, Luna has contributed money to the fund and several other businesses have offered in-kind donations: last month, The Parlour gifted free pints of ice cream to the program’s first 36 new monthly sustainers. Overall, though, Berenbaum says, the response from fellow business owners hasn’t been as strong as he’d hoped.

“When we first started soliciting donations, I was going to local businesses and saying, ‘Hey, how do you feel about contributing to this?’” Berenbaum says. “Most were like, ‘Well, we sort of like our old philanthropic model,’ meaning they like either giving away food or donating food or time to big events.”

Durham Neighbors isn’t necessarily restricted to the pandemic era, Berenbaum says—he doesn’t have a timeline for the program. Looking forward, his main objective is to promote UBI plans and educate the community on the benefits of person-to-person giving.

Cranley hopes Durham Neighbors will help open people’s eyes to the widening income disparity in Durham. Her work with the program is deeply personal.

“I grew up in a low economic situation,” she says. “Single parent, food stamps, food insecurity, electricity getting shut off, the whole nine yards. Some people don’t understand how much $50 can help.” 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Amanda Wicks’s name. 

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