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Advancing Creativity, Supporting Financial Stability

Dan Blask, Program Manager

Exploring the Impact of Grants on People Receiving Public Benefits

A spare watercolor painting of a child on a swing, casting a shadow over a pale, monochromatic background.
Watercolor painting by Will Dowd, a past Mass Cultural Council grantee, featured on the ArtSake blog.

In Spring of 2022, Mass Cultural Council was preparing to launch our Cultural Sector Recovery Grants. The Recovery Grants were a one-time, $60 million investment in Massachusetts cultural organizations, artists, and cultural workers to help chart a path for growth from the COVID-19 pandemic. Our staff worked hard to recruit applicants. We made a special effort to reach people who hadn’t applied for grants from us before.

It was during one of these early meetings with artists and cultural workers that I first heard someone ask, “If I receive one of your grants, how will it affect my public benefits?”

That was a good question.

I vaguely knew what “public benefits” were – assistance programs offered by local, state, or federal governments, like SNAP, MassHealth, Social Security, and others. But I didn’t have a ready answer. Would our grants affect programs like these? And if so, how?

As an Agency, we began to explore the issue of grants and public benefits. In doing so, we found a complex, many-layered system, without easy fixes. On the positive side, we also found others trying to help.

Benefit programs can support a range of circumstances, including disability, retirement, health insurance, nutrition, housing, and poverty. Many benefit programs have limits on a recipient’s income (how much you make per month or year) and/or assets (how much money is in your accounts, plus property like homes or cars). And different kinds of income (“earned” or “unearned”) can “count” differently, depending on the benefit program’s rules.

All this to say, a lot depends – depends on what grant, on what benefits, and on what are the grantee’s individual circumstances. (This is what I mean by a complex system with many layers.)

Despite the complexity, one thing has been clear since the beginning: in some cases, our grants could have impacts on eligibility for public benefits. In other words, they could cause unintended challenges for creative individuals we were working hard to support.

In 2023, we found help through Work Without Limits, an initiative of ForHealth Consulting at UMass Chan Medical School. Counselors at Work Without Limits are trained in understanding the ins and outs of public benefits. They specialize in helping individuals understand how various types of income may affect eligibility for public benefits.

Mass Cultural Council has a partnership with Work Without Limits to offer free, confidential benefits counseling to our grant recipients. That way, our grantees can better plan for (and potentially minimize) any impact to their benefits.

Issues surrounding public benefits have a distinct relevance to the disability community. At a speech at the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conference in August 2023, our Executive Director Michael J. Bobbitt spoke about the way disability advocates must continue to “level up,” like videogame characters gaining in skills and strength. I find this metaphor useful here, because with a complex and many-layered issue like public benefits, the work to change things needs to be multi-layered, too. It needs to grow, and then build on that growth.

After awarding the Cultural Sector Recovery Grants in 2023, we designed a new program for Fiscal Year 2024, Grants for Creative Individuals. Our earlier work on benefits issues informed our program-building. For example, in the new program, we made it a Funding Priority to support individuals who receive certain anti-poverty benefits, and we included a question in the application about receiving benefits counseling from Work Without Limits. Also, to share some of what we’ve learned, we published a Grants and Public Benefits Fact Sheet on our website.

Beyond that, we continue looking for other solutions – as well as other agencies and organizations that may be able to help.

This is an obvious point, but we want our grants to make things better for our grantees. It’s painful to consider that grants could have unintended consequences. Financial stability for artists and culture bearers is part of what makes our communities livable and vibrant. The more collaborators working toward this end, the more we can all level up.

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