With the high cost of living, and wages failing to keep up, affording basic needs on low wages is impossible for many.

The Census Bureau’s recently released 2021 poverty data show how impactful targeted cash payments to families with low incomes can be — and how far our country still has to go.

I know a bit about what works for tackling poverty because I’ve been there. I thought my life was over at 16. I found out I was pregnant, and I didn’t know where to turn. I felt scared and alone.

Thankfully, I found an organization — Economic Mobility Pathways, or EMPath, in Boston — that offered a way forward. It would have been easy to give up on school, and on my dreams — but with the resources and sense of community I found in that program, I was able to graduate high school on time. This support laid the foundation for my future success, for me to achieve my goals, and pursue a career giving back to my community: as a community organizer, as an advocate for Boston Public School students, a Boston city councilor, as acting mayor, and as president and CEO of EMPath.

My story illustrates a fundamental truth about humanity: We can’t do it alone. Nor should we have to. We all deserve supportive communities, resources to turn to when we are struggling, and a government that ensures our basic needs are met. We deserve not just to survive, but to thrive.

Our society treats people with experiences like mine — people living in poverty — as “less-than.” Our systems are not designed to promote economic independence and true security — especially for Black and brown families, who are forced to play catch-up from centuries of oppression while facing institutionalized racism at every turn.

Thankfully, combating poverty is possible — and there are more than enough resources in this country and here in Massachusetts to ensure families are able to not only meet their basic needs, but achieve their biggest goals. The new Census data are proof that we already have solutions at our disposal: From 2020 to 2021, the child poverty rate in the United States was nearly cut in half, landing at 5.2 percent — the lowest rate ever recorded.

This is largely due to the temporarily expanded Child Tax Credit, which was increased from $2,000 to either $3,000 or $3,600 per child, depending on age, as part of the American Rescue Plan. Each month from July through December of 2021, the government sent monthly payments to more than 36 million households nationwide, no strings attached. This was different from previous years, where families had to wait to receive the credit in one lump sum during tax time. The credit was also made fully refundable, meaning families did not need to have any income to receive the payments —– a change from previous eligibility requirements.

With the highest inflation rate in four decades driving the cost of living up dramatically over the past year, and wages failing to keep up, affording basic needs like housing, food, diapers, health care, and transportation is impossible for many. In Massachusetts, one of the most expensive states in the country, families’ budgets are further strained by extremely high housing and child care costs. According to an analysis released by Boston Indicators in September, the poverty rate in Massachusetts remains higher than 21 other states, in large part due to how expensive it is. And the racial wealth gap continues to soar — in Greater Boston, the median net worth for white households is $247,500, while for Black households it is just $8, according to a 2015 Federal Reserve study.

Paying for diapers, food, housing, transportation, child care, and life’s other necessities forces many in our state to make impossibly tough choices. Families in Economic Mobility Pathways’ programs here in Massachusetts face these unthinkable dilemmas every day. Sadly, these are the same obstacles I had to overcome 40 years ago.

Direct cash assistance is a proven way to support families in a dignified way. We’ve seen how cash payments — not only the Child Tax Credit, but stimulus checks and guaranteed income programs — are highly effective at boosting economic mobility and improving families’ well-being. Many of these programs have the potential to help reduce the racial wealth gap. Of course, direct cash payments should be coupled with other critical initiatives: from increased affordable housing and homeownership supports to lowering the costs of child care and higher education.

Increasing cash assistance has long been an advocacy priority for us at EMPath because, year after year, we hear the same thing from families in our programs: They need cash. For families living in deep poverty, neither wages nor government support are enough to survive in today’s world.

But we also know that providing cash alone is often not enough. Families also desire guidance and support on how to leverage an influx of additional resources to achieve long-term goals. We all need a mentor in life: to help set goals, strategize around how to achieve them, and tackle roadblocks.

Coaching support for struggling families should be holistic, individualized, trauma-informed, and culturally competent. Participants in our intensive local programs double and even triple their incomes, working one-on-one with a mentor for five years to achieve goals related to education, employment, finances, housing, well-being, and more.

It’s time our government and institutions took bold steps to provide families with the level of support they need and deserve to achieve their goals and ensure their children can live happy, healthy, and fulfilling lives.

Kim Janey is president and CEO of Economic Mobility Pathways, and served as the first woman and the first Black acting mayor of Boston.

See the Op-Ed

This op-ed also appeared in the print edition of the Boston Globe on October 11, 2022.