Cash Assistance is a Critical Part of Reproductive Justice 

By Priya Pandey

3 min read.

Rx Kids, an exciting new program in Flint, Michigan for pregnant people and newborns, began enrollment in January 2023. The first citywide maternal and infant cash prescription program in the nation, Rx Kids will provide every pregnant Flint resident with a one-time payment of $1,500 followed by $500 payments per month for the first year of their child’s life–with no strings attached. These payments will be critical in addressing poverty, housing and food security, health and well-being, and maternal and infant health outcomes. Experts predict that this program will have tremendous long-term impacts and could hopefully inspire other localities to take similar action. 

The conversation on reproductive justice has been front and center in many spaces following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. Many advocates, organizers, and policy makers have united across issue areas to support reproductive rights, specifically access to safe, affordable, and accessible abortion. However, the framework of reproductive justice goes deeper than the right to seek an abortion. 

“Reproductive justice” was first coined by Black women in 1994 to illustrate the ways inequality and systemic factors shape people’s decisions around childbearing and parenting. The term seeks to highlight the ways that disparate policies, societal conditions and norms, and structural factors limit reproductive options for pregnant people, women of color, Indigenous people, immigrants, and other marginalized communities. This includes access to contraception; paid family and medical leave; family-sustaining wages and good jobs; food security; housing; and maternal health. Ultimately, reproductive justice is about access and shifting the power, resources, and structural change needed for addressing the well-being of all women and pregnant people.  

Part of the reproductive justice framework includes the right to “parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities” and raise children with dignity in safe, healthy, and supportive environments, free from violence and harm. Rampant economic insecurity and poverty are therefore incompatible with reproductive justice. Achieving reproductive justice requires that people of all backgrounds be well-supported in raising the children they have regardless of their income, race, zip code, ability, or national origin. Rx Kids is the latest local initiative that reflects a nationwide interest in guaranteed incomes, and also illustrates a core priority of the reproductive justice movement: the right to raise children in a safe environment. 

The prenatal and first months of life are critical for a baby’s early years  lifelong health and development. This time is also when families struggle the most financially. Pregnant people and new parents are incredibly vulnerable to periods of economic distress that could be caused by loss of work, unanticipated leave, health challenges, and the unexpected costs of welcoming a child into the world. Providing cash payments and other material supports to pregnant people and new parents helps achieve reproductive justice and can have positive impacts on both the infant and parent’s overall well-being. Unrestricted monthly cash payments provide people with direct, flexible, and dignified assistance that supports stability and long-term financial prosperity. Research has shown that when people receive cash, they spend it on necessities such as food, utilities, and housing. Unrestricted cash assistance programs uplift their participants and provide them with autonomy. Research suggests that these programs, including the expanded 2021 Child Tax Credit, enhance participants’ well-being, self-determination, and financial stability. 

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant is an underutilized source of support for children in families with low incomes. But because the block grant can be used for so many other things and ongoing TANF cash assistance brings restrictive rules and administrative burden, TANF assistance reaches only a small fraction of those who are eligible—who, in turn, are only a fraction of families with low incomes. Rx Kids, which is funded through a mixture of TANF and private funding, underscores how TANF could provide far more. Experts predict that Flint’s Rx Kids program will impact everything from health to reading scores and graduation rates–and much more. Every child deserves a strong start in life no matter what circumstances they were born into. More states and localities should look for opportunities to use TANF and other sources of funding to reduce poverty during and following pregnancy, which will in turn realize a central goal of the reproductive justice movement.