Baby Bonds Can Build Wealth for the Poor—and Bring our State and Country Together

Interview with Connecticut State Rep. Geraldo Reyes | January 16, 2024

Connecticut State Rep. Geraldo Reyes speaks at the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators

Baby Bonds are an increasingly popular government policy in which every child born into poverty receives a publicly funded trust account at birth, providing them with “start-up capital” to pursue fulfilling, productive, prosperous, and self-directed lives. Follow our Baby Blogs series to learn about the vision, politics, and people behind Baby Bonds and their transformative impact on the lives of young people, their families, and communities.

Policy is the true catalyst for concrete change in the United States. Bold and innovative legislation has the power to transform lives and tackle generational systemic inequities. And at the forefront of policy implementation lies our elected officials themselves—the drivers and advocates for our rights, economy, and overall health. 

To bring a bold policy idea like Baby Bonds to life requires the allyship of these key drivers and political advocates. While in Connecticut the Baby Bonds effort was initiated by the State Treasurer, key elected leaders provided significant strategic and political muscle to advance and secure the policy, and eventual funding for the program. 

For this installment of Baby Blogs, we spoke with Connecticut State Rep. Geraldo Reyes about his involvement in the passing of Baby Bonds, the politics in pushing through such legislation, and how his own upbringing led to his appreciation and advocacy for policies like Baby Bonds.

GR: I’m in my ninth year as an elected official for the 75th district of Waterbury. It covers all downtown and all the way south. I have a mix of constituents in the area, including Census Tract 3505, which is one of the poorest areas in the city. And when I say poor, I’m talking about a median income of $24,000 a year. In my neighborhood, people need housing, better health choices in food, and greater access to public transportation and jobs. I’ve also been fighting for years for environmental justice law. That’s my passion. We need good air, good water, and good land. 

GR: I’ve been very fortunate that I was the chair of the Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus (BPRC) at that time [2021], and I was on the ground floor when then State Treasurer Shawn Wooden approached the BPRC for Baby Bonds support. We assured him that the BPRC would support the legislation. We pushed it all the way through to the House and then to the Senate, and the Governor signed it. The sad part about all that was that we then learned it wasn’t funded. That was another one of those ‘aha’ moments for the BPRC—we’ve had a few issues we thought we won and then had to fight for them again. 

The BPRC saw Baby Bonds as a game changer to level the playing field—as some restitution, if you will—for some of our poor kids. Myself and then BPRC Vice Chair Representative Bobby Gibson from Bloomfield, we were in on day one. We went to every press conference with Treasurer Wooden and the BPRC helped muscle this through. 

What about your upbringing and childhood contributed to your interest in Baby Bonds?

GR: I come from poverty myself, so I can see the benefits in an investment made in a poor child. When you’re 18-years-old you have an opportunity to get some game-changing money as opposed to having a bank account with $100 or nothing at all. That’s a game changer.

When I graduated from eighth grade, I was the first one in my family to graduate from anywhere—it was an achievement and was celebrated as such. 

I went to high school, but had zero plans for college. In fact, I figured after high school, that was it. I had eight sisters and we were pretty poor. By the time I graduated from high school, my father was already gone from the family. My mother raised us pretty much by herself. Expectations for college were zero. When I graduated and people were starting to say goodbye at the end of August, because they were going to school, I kind of had an ‘aha’ moment on my own: “Where am I gonna go?”

So, myself and a colleague of mine that lived in the same housing project, we both applied to the local community college. We didn’t have a lot of money, we didn’t have any plans, and we were ill prepared for college, to be very honest, because we’d never taken college prep courses. It’s as if our school had decided for us that we weren’t going to go to high school prep courses because we weren’t college material. We were never given the option. We were eventually accepted into what was then a State Technical College program, simply on a trial. We were there on a semester-by-semester basis and we had to prove to the administration that we could do it. 

The first year and a half was a struggle. Then we finally got onto the system and financial aid started coming a little easier. School then was a whole lot cheaper than it is now. This is exactly why I know that Baby Bonds are needed, because what I was able to accomplish back in the 70s and 80s—it’s almost impossible to do today with the prices of tuition and books. Education is so expensive, books are so expensive, and it continues to rise. I’ve seen so many young adults in financial debt because of college. For these reasons, I knew I had to support Baby Bonds. 

Talk about the process behind passing Baby Bonds legislation and what BPRC’s role was in getting it passed.

GR: I respectfully say that we muscled through. We didn’t have everybody on board at the start. Even though the BPRC was supportive, we had teammates that didn’t see the importance or value in it. We had to build a case. When we were asked how many from the BPRC come from poverty, if it isn’t 100 percent, it’s pretty darn close. That spoke to why the BPRC was advocating and championing that through—because it could have been, and generally was—most of us.

How did you convince the skeptics that Baby Bonds was worth taking a chance on?

GR: It was twofold. We wanted it to be the nation’s first and we talked about restitution and what that could look like on a national level. Baby Bonds would be a first great step of restitution for those that have been left behind and for whatever reason are in that poor bucket. To know that through no fault of your own you’re born into poverty. It’s not that you did anything wrong. Your parents were doing the best they could. But there’s just not enough—it’s so many people with too many mouths to feed. And it’s just getting worse with the way the world is going right now.

We had to convince a lot of colleagues that were on the fence as far as the need for Baby Bonds, because there’s a lot who say, “I did it without it, they can do it too. We picked ourselves up, and we came from poverty.” When we actually show the data, the largest percentage of poor and working folks in Connecticut are poor white people. That one point right there took a lot of people off the fence. It was Black and Brown people advocating for it, but the largest group of poor in the state are white. I think that that was an ‘aha’ moment for some of the people that were on the fence. If you look at the eastern part of the state of Connecticut, there’s a lot of poor families out there and they’re almost all white. And we were able to work with Senator Cathy Osten. She was a champion for us out there in eastern Connecticut. She helped push in the Senate along with the Black and Hispanic Senators. We got it to pass and the Governor signed it. 

So, here in Connecticut, the majority of Baby Bonds children will be white. I always tell people, we’re a Blue state, [but] because outside of our large cities, everywhere around us is Red, we’re really a shade of purple.  

What were the funding challenges related to Baby Bonds?

GR: Our only Achilles heel was the funding. I was really deflated when I found out that it [Baby Bonds] wasn’t funded. It was the ugly undertones of politics. At the midnight hour, somebody with the Governor’s team pulled the plug on the funding, unbeknownst to most of us. It was one of those ugly moments in politics and we live and learn. But that was an ongoing battle for the Treasurer to try and figure out how to fund it. The newly elected Treasurer Erick Russell was able to bring Baby Bonds over the goal line and receive funding without even affecting the 2023-24 biennium budget. He did his due diligence and actually was able to convince the Governor that this would be a good investment in the future. It took a couple of years to get the Governor on board, but he got on board. 

At that press conference in May 2023 when we finally got it funded, besides thanking the Governor and everybody else, I voiced my displeasure in the fact that for something that we all think is so important, we had to go find money for it. It was so important that we couldn’t just fund it. We say “the kids are our most important asset,” “kids are our most important resources,” “education is the key”—we say all these slogans. But yet, we didn’t fund it. How many other programs were funded that weren’t as valuable? 

Describe the most recent legislative session [2023] when the funding for Baby Bonds was secured.

GR: It wasn’t easy. There were a lot of long nights, lost sleep, and many difficult conversations. A lot of anxiety. We’re sending mixed signals, telling the kids they’re our most important resources and education is the key, but we’re not putting our money where our mouth is. I struggle with that. I come from poverty. I don’t come from Fairfield County, and I’m not rich to this day either. 

Treasurer Erick Russell was able to financially explain how we could fund Baby Bonds without the state’s credit card. I was very pleased and very happy that we were able to get it done eventually, but we should have been able to find that money from day one when we signed it into law. That’s what we really meant to do.

What advice do you have for your colleagues in other parts of the country who are considering Baby Bonds?

GR: Bring as many of your colleagues to the table sooner than later. Get buy-in from those that may be on the opposite side of the aisle. We have a large Democratic Caucus here with over 100 Democrats, and we’re split into three pools. We not only have to worry about the other side, we have to worry about our own caucus, between the liberals and moderates and the very conservative. We did get some Republican votes on Baby Bonds. I think that the frank conversations early on with the other side and doing everything possible to try to be financially responsible made a difference. 

A very important piece of this bill is the education piece for not only the child, but also the parents. This money isn’t going to be squandered and wasted. There’s an educational piece where there’s sign off at certain levels that you’re doing the right thing and that there’s training for financial responsibility.

Any final thoughts?

GR: Baby Bonds is a national first. It’s a big deal. And it’s going to be replicated. We’re at the forefront of this policy, and it will resonate in a couple of different states really quickly. I know that it’s only a matter of time before we see other states actually establish their own Baby Bonds programs.

Baby Bonds is a good opportunity for this country, which is at a political divide. The nation has never been more divided. And we’ve had a lot of empty conversations around restitution. I think this is a great step for some sort of restitution for the poor and working poor—that this could be the hand up and a leg up that they need. I’m looking forward to seeing what results Baby Bonds bring in the near future.

Connecticut State Representative Geraldo Reyes Jr. has represented the 75th Assembly District of Waterbury in the Connecticut House of Representatives since 2016, and currently serves as Deputy Speaker. He was the recent past-president of the Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus (BPRC) and prioritizes issues related to the environment, mental health, and social and economic justice.

If you missed previous installments of our Baby Blogs series, read them here

To share feedback on this blog, or for questions about Baby Bonds, email David Radcliffe at [email protected].

To learn more, explore our Baby Bonds resources.