Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced the launch of the Crescent City Card in November 2021 in a press conference at the Rosenwald Recreation Center. Credit: Michelle Liu/Verite News

In November of last year, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell gathered finance executives and community leaders on a basketball court inside a city recreation center to announce a new initiative that, she said, was aimed at addressing the city’s racial wealth gap. 

The mayor’s vision centered on the Crescent City Card, a quasi-municipal ID card with banking capabilities, powered by credit card giant Mastercard and financial technology company Mobility Capital Finance, or MoCaFi, that would make it easier for city residents to access both banking and city services.

As part of the Crescent City Card rollout, Cantrell announced that 125 “opportunity youth” would participate in a basic income pilot program, getting $350 per month — loaded onto a “MoCaFi Immediate Response Card” — for 10 months to use as they saw fit. That program, administered by Cantrell’s nonprofit organization Forward Together New Orleans, launched in late April, and city officials say the spending data demonstrates how the unrestricted cash has helped participants build financial stability.

The city also quietly launched a second Crescent City Card pilot program with a smaller basic income component. It was designed to give 125 “truly needy” residents spending cards that would be loaded with $200 a month for four months — though the city ultimately managed to hand out only 76 cards. But a central goal of the pilot was to test a new function of Mastercard’s City Key platform, a product the company is marketing to local governments as a way to disburse public aid and provide access to services. 

“The primary thing that this initiative was testing for was the technology,” said Emily Wolff, director of the city Office of Youth and Families.

Mastercard — which was a partner of and investor in MoCaFi, a city contractor brought on in 2021 to develop a municipal ID for all city residents — even paid for the pilot, donating $100,000 to Forward Together last year. A spokesperson for Mastercard said the contribution was made in December, following the Crescent City Card announcement.

The cards offered to pilot participants included contactless technology that they could use to tap into 16 recreation centers and pools run by the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission. The cash served as an incentive for people to use the cards, officials with the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families said. 

NORD randomly selected unknowing participants, and cards were made for them. But about 40 percent of the intended recipients never claimed the cards over the course of the four-month pilot, officials said, with some residents apprehensive about an offer of free cash. 

By the end of the four-month program, which ran from March to June of this year, city staffers had given away 76 cards, leaving $39,200 on the table. The program’s contract required no data-gathering or reporting back to the city to measure its success, though the city did track whether people used the cards at the rec centers. The contract did allow Mastercard to “operate and fund a separate feedback program” for participants, who could then receive an additional $250 gift card.

A city pilot program led by Mastercard

The pilot aimed to explore whether a card that had financial services linked to it could also function as a library, school enrollment and public transportation card, said Jack Shaevitz, the office’s deputy director of policy. 

It was also a chance for Mastercard to test the City Key platform. 

“This is a very exciting project that will put NOLA on the map as the first city to bring access functionality (via EZ Access) on a prepaid card – not only nationally, but globally!” wrote Steve Tae, a vice president at Mastercard, to various stakeholders, including city officials and Mastercard and MoCaFi executives, in a July 2021 email.

Mastercard’s proposed pilot implementation timeline, included as an attachment on Steve Tae’s July 2021 email to city officials.

The project was situated at a nexus of Mastercard’s interests. The $100,000, Office of Youth and Families officials said, was drawn from the multibillion-dollar company’s $500 million pledge to Black communities to help close the racial wealth gap, a promise similar to those made by other financial giants after a wave of protests against racism and police brutality in the summer of 2020. 

The pilot was also shaped by Tae, a Mastercard employee working on the City Key platform. And it made use of MoCaFi, the city contractor on the larger municipal ID project. (Wole Coaxum, MoCaFi’s CEO, told Verite the project was not connected to the municipal ID contract.) 

Emails between Mastercard and other stakeholders show planning for card access to NORD centers began as early as January 2021 and picked up around the time of the press conference. Mastercard and the city eyed a January 2022 launch date, which was pushed back several times, with attorneys “working feverishly,” as Mastercard’s Tae wrote, to finalize the contract.

“MasterCard was really eager to get this money on the ground around this larger national pledge that they made around their diversity initiatives,” Wolff said. “We were a partner who could help them do that quickly.”

The New Orleans Recreation Development Commission already has cards for residents that track their usage of NORD programming, said Larry Barabino, Jr., the organization’s CEO. The only difference, essentially, was the “city key” card’s capacity to hold money.

Forward Together, which at the time served as a fiscal agent for several city-sponsored programs, sent Mastercard’s $100,000 donation to MoCaFi, which loaded $800 onto each card in $200 increments over four months. The contract stipulated that the cash go to the “truly needy,” so the city focused on two demographics central to its rec centers: teenagers and seniors. 

NORD randomly selected 125 people out of its database who could swap out their existing cards with “city key” cards. But the program soon hit a snag — NORD was having trouble convincing people to take the money.

According to notes from a March 16 meeting on the Crescent City Card and the larger municipal ID program, “There has been some hesitancy in [card] pick-up.” The partners were tasked with thinking of “ways to ensure people this is a legit program.”

NORD worked to allay people’s suspicions that the money came with strings attached, said Jahanna Cannon-Brightman, NORD’s chief programming officer. The organization sent emails, made phone calls and approached holdouts at rec centers. “We tried up to the last day,” Cannon-Brightman said. (Wolff said such skepticism is common among participants in basic income programs.)

Because the cards had already been printed with 125 pre-chosen names, NORD couldn’t reallocate those cards, or the money on them, to other participants. 

Ultimately, the program managed to put cards in the hands of 76 people, about 60 percent of the original goal. Staffers with the city’s Office of Youth and Families said they didn’t know if the unused cash was returned to Mastercard or to Forward Together. 

Forward Together is now set to dissolve following a legal dispute between the group and its former executive director, Shaun Randolph. The group has not said what it will do with private donations once it shuts down. Coaxum said the unused cards were now inactive and had not been returned to the company, and that the remaining money remained “available pending instructions.” 

“Uptake for the pilot was less than intended; activities in connection with it ended,” Coaxum wrote in an email.

For those who did participate, the cash eased financial stress, especially as the pandemic and inflation strained household budgets, officials said. Cannon-Brightman said she had heard from seniors who used the money to augment their fixed incomes and teens who bought new school uniforms. 

“They were amazed. They were excited,” Cannon-Brightman said. 

The pilot has at times been framed as a smaller version of the separate, ongoing guaranteed income pilot for the city’s opportunity youth, where nearly half of the distributions so far have been spent on food and groceries, recent data show. For the NORD pilot, the city didn’t collect data on how the money was used. Often, such reporting requirements are made by the grantor, Wolff said, with different funders requiring differing levels of evaluation.

The city viewed the pilot as a success, with Barabino touting it among NORD’s accomplishments during a city council budget hearing this month. The Mayor’s Office has otherwise mentioned the program only sparingly in its press materials and to news outlets.

A spokesperson for Mastercard did not answer most of a reporter’s questions about the company’s $500 million “In Solidarity” pledge, its City Key platform or the outcomes of the New Orleans pilot.

The momentum of the Crescent City Card program appears to have stalled last spring due to a connection to the Cantrell administration’s “smart cities” project, a proposed 15-year contract to install thousands of data-collecting “smart devices” around the city and create a new “city-directed” internet service to compete with Cox Communications and AT&T. That project was abandoned after allegations of bid-rigging and self-dealing led to investigations by the City Council and the Office of Inspector General. 

The Crescent City Card was not part of the smart cities deal, but both concepts were introduced to the Cantrell administration by the same company: Chicago-based consulting firm Ignite Cities, now called Elevate Cities. Ignite arranged a meeting between Cantrell and Mastercard at the 2019 US Conference of Mayors, as The Lens reported in July. Two months later, Ignite founder George Burciaga was meeting with Cantrell administration officials and Mastercard and MoCaFi executives to discuss a city ID program. 

“Some of the people that were involved in these projects … politicized all of this work in a way that made it difficult for us as city employees, who are here to do our jobs of serving people … to do that work,” Wolff said. 

Shaevitz later clarified in an email that “there is continued work to launch the Municipal ID program in 2023 to connect residents to more government services and increase financial capabilities.” 

The city’s contract with MoCaFi to develop a municipal ID program ended in May of this year and has not been renewed, Coaxum confirmed to Verite.

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Michelle Liu

Michelle previously worked for The Associated Press in South Carolina and was an inaugural corps member with the Report for America initiative. She also covered statewide criminal justice issues for Mississippi...