Zinida Moore works multiple jobs. The mother of three typically goes from an overnight shift at one job to another one in the morning. She was one of 5,000 Chicago residents who were given monthly $500 payments for one year, no strings attached, as part of a pilot guaranteed income program. A more limited approach to UBI—or universal basic income—the program focused on assisting a randomly selected group of people. It’s a simple yet bold idea, writes Elly Fishman, giving a boost and “breathing room” to low-income residents. Within the group, 72 percent were women; among those, 70 percent identified as Black and nearly 60 percent had children.

But how effective is such a program? The extra cash won’t pull a family out of poverty, nor would it allow Moore to buy a house, for example. But “that breathing room can turn into substantial, sustained change,” reports Fishman, and over the course of the year, Moore was able to pay off two of her largest bills and pay for three months’ rent up front. She was also able to improve her credit score and find relief in other, less-quantifiable ways—moments of calm and joy because she was able to provide a bit more for her family.

City officials around the U.S. are exploring similar programs. Whether it’s the right kind of government aid remains uncertain, but Fishman’s portrait of one resident shows that a little bit of money can go a long way.

Working multiple jobs is how Moore has long managed to cobble together enough income to supply her kids with basic necessities at home and for school. And then there’s the not-strictly-necessary stuff — trendy clothes, trips to the movies, money for the mall — that she wants them to have. It all adds up. Her financial stability has always been precarious, and she worries that one emergency could quickly spiral her into even deeper debt.

Moore’s phone dings. It’s Ziniya. She needs a new uniform for her cheer squad. Her text breaks down the cost of each piece: $45 for an oversize hair bow, $25 for a collar, $110 for shoes, $125 for the backpack. Then there’s the rest of the uniform. All told, it will run $630.

In previous years, Moore might have sent out a text to family and friends seeking donations for the uniform. She might have asked the school if she could pay in installments. But this year, for the first time, she can cover it all herself. That’s because she has an extra $500 a month coming in — not from a third job or a side hustle but from the City of Chicago, which gives her the money to spend or save as she chooses.

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.