The goal of any poverty program is to close the gap between what people have and what they need to thrive. Traditional solutions offer aid in the form of services like meals, housing, and counseling. A newer and increasing popular solution is direct cash transfers (DCT), also called unconditional cash transfers (UCTs). This week I sat down with Katrina van Gasse on The Caring Economy to learn about her disruptive approach to poverty alleviation and her own start-up, AidKit.
As she explains during our interview, direct cash transfer programs are based on two core principles: first, that everyone’s needs are different; second, that people know what’s best for themselves and their families. Direct payments give recipients the flexibility to spend aid on their most urgent priorities, whether they be rent, education, childcare, transportation, or other basic needs.
Van Gasse notes that part of these programs’ fast growth is that there is increasingly clear evidence that they work, having stated: “Over the past few decades, researchers around the world have consistently found that direct payments improve recipients’ quality of life without making them dependent or encouraging wasteful behavior. GiveDirectly, a global NGO specializing in direct cash transfers (and a frequent AidKit partner), rounded up findings from several major studies.
Among the findings: The Agricultural and Applied Economics Association’s report which reported no evidence that cash transfers translated into an overall reduction of labor supply or work effort — in fact quite the opposite: the transfers were used to improve household income-generating activities.”
She also notes that the World Bank has found that, “Small, frequent, and reliable cash payments to poor households have been shown to cause contemporaneous improvements in multiple domains, such as per capita consumption, savings, nutrition, mental health, teen pregnancies, child marriages, and intimate partner violence.”
When we discuss Aid’Kit’s unique offerings, one point she raises is that they honor the dignity of their clients, noting that AidKit addresses the challenges head-on: “Our applications are multilingual. We also understand that not everyone can receive funds the same way. That’s why AidKit supports several options for delivering aid: via same day bank transfer for those with a bank account, debit card or virtual cards for those without.And we do all this without skimping on security, privacy, or fraud protection.”
I wondered how Van Gasse arrived at this point in her career. Her career and entrepreneurial successes seem preordained, but when I ask her about discovering her career passion, she notes: “After graduating from Santa Clara I was going through the confusing time — what do you do for your first job and is your first job the determinant of your whole career life.”
Previously she had workedhappily with an entrepreneur at a small social enterprise called Artisan Connect so she decided to seek similar on-the-ground experience again, working with a social enterprise but a more established organization. She found her way to Silicon Valley Bank and built new skill setsquickly. She worked with many types of businesses, many types of passionate entrepreneurs, and garnered an understanding of the complexities of different business models.
After four years she felt she had peaked in her learnings and with her enhanced skills decided to return to the social impact world, taking her to Fulbright scholarship and Fiji to start a program for women entrepreneurs and through a microfinance bank built out an accelerator program called Fiji Bloom, which continues to thrive to this day.
By the time covid arrived, Van Gasse was thinking afresh about cash assistance and underserved populations, including the undocumented community in her home state of Colorado. Its members were not receiving stimulus checks like others and couldn’t access unemployment insurance. So,Van Gasse and some like-minded colleagues put together a pilot and raised $200,000 in three weeks and began distributing cash assistance.
When I asked her about any challenges faced due to the politicization of undocumented workers, she shares, “One of our missions for our left behind workers fund was to get public sector support, which we quickly secured from the city of Denver. This allowed us to go back to the State for the governor’s support. Eventually the State did contribute — first it was $5 million but it was only for rental assistance program because they were uncomfortable with funds directly going to people, so if it went to a landlord, that skirted potential risks. After that we were able to eventually continue working with them and created a partnership. The need was apparent and now they’vecontributed over $20 million to left behind workers. They also helped introduced a bill into the Colorado legislature which has been approved and means that Colorado will have the first unemployment insurance program permanent benefit for undocumented workers and AidKit will be supporting the implementation. It’s a full circle program and kind of cool to see a cash assistance program led to permanent policy change.”
I concluded the interview by asking Van Gasse for pearls of wisdom that she has gleaned in her career. She wisely states: “I think following curiosity is key, and I think that kind of framing, for me at least takes away the pressure offiguring out what we are meant to do with our lives. Rather than having a grand plan, I think it’s about really understanding what you’re curious about and just following that thread. Just see where that takes you.”
Van Gasse also advises: “I would try to be intentional about what you consume.What you consume is what you become, so I think it’s important to understand the agency that we do have, to decide how we create our environment and where we can make shifts and find connections. Trust yourself and know when something feels exciting; know when something feels wrong, when it’s a toxic environment, when you should say “no”, when you should say “yes”. I think it is the most important guiding principle that you can have.”
I share Van Gasse’s observation that we don’t necessarily take stock of the agency that we have in our lives. We have good fortune. We have platforms. We have more sway than we sometimes think we do.
For me, since the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I’ve thought about challenging people regularly, every day. For example, when we sit down for a meeting or to start a new project, why not ask ourselves how we can make this effort more inclusive, more progressive?
If everyone at the table is thinking that way, and everyone’s opinions matter, then I think we will create more diverse and more progressive businesses and communities. So, I like reminding people that they do have that kind of sway or agency that Van Gasse has focused on.
As with all guests on The Caring Economy, Katrina van Gasseexemplifies how leaders with purpose-driven lives and careers are shaping our contemporary lives for the better.