Can a Guaranteed Income Pilot Advance a Method of Policymaking That Affirms Human Dignity?

April 3, 2019 |

Springboard [to Opportunities] works directly with families who live in federally subsidized affordable housing. Our goal is to help these families reach their dreams in life, school, and work. As an organization, we pride ourselves on the fact that we are radically resident driven. What that means is that we work alongside our families, trusting that they know better than anyone what it is that they need to be successful.

About two years ago, I had an epiphany. I realized that despite all of the hard work we were doing as an organization, despite all of our amazing wraparound programs – such as after school programming, workforce development, health clinics, and food pantries – we were not seeing an impact. We were not moving the needle.

There was a disconnect between what our organization was providing and what our families truly need. Being that we pride ourselves on being radically resident driven, we did what we do. We went out and we had conversations. But this time we asked a very different question. We simply said, ‘what do you need?’

Time and time again, we heard the same thing. In order for our families to address their biggest needs, they needed cash – cash for emergencies, cash for groceries, cash for kids’ activities, cash just so they could breathe.

During this time, I heard from Ciara, who talked about the stress that she experienced because she didn’t have the $25 her daughter needed to participate in the science fair. And then I heard from Shameeka, who talked about how she had to quit her job after hitting a pothole because she did not have the resources to get her car fixed. 

Our families told us exactly what it was that they need. Our job is to listen.

When families tell you what they need, you should listen. Our families are telling us daily what it is that they need to be successful. It is our job to be bold and disruptive and address that need. 

December 10, 2018, I made the phone call that could change Arlene’s life. Upon introducing myself, she nearly started screaming. She knew who I was, and she knew why I was calling. I had just informed her that she would be participating in the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. After her sobs of joy and her screams of excitement, I asked her why was she so excited. She said, ‘I can go back to school. I needed $1,200 to pay for a GED prep course. Now I have that money. I can go back to school.’

A small, manageable sum to most of us, $1,200 had become an insurmountable obstacle separating her from her dreams. Obstacles usurping dreams is exactly why Springboard has launched the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. This pilot is providing 20 Springboard mothers $1,000 cash each month for 12 months to use how they see fit, no strings attached. This is the first guaranteed income pilot in the nation that specifically, strategically, intentionally – recognizing the systems that have been put in place – targets Black women with extremely low incomes living in poverty. 

A guaranteed income is a no strings attached, direct cash benefit. The model provides people with a periodic cash payment delivered unconditionally regardless of income, resources, or employment status. In addition to the no strings attached aspect that is the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, we are mindful to take a two-generation lens, coupling financial services for our mothers with children’s savings accounts and social support training. 

I would be remiss if I did not say that this model was developed in partnership with our mothers during a six-month planning period. We are optimistic that these efforts will afford the women and their kids access to the resources to obtain all of their dreams, whether they be educational successes, economic security, or monthly self-care rituals.

But [for] all the innovation that is this pilot, the goal is quite simple – to provide the breathing room necessary to help families actualize their dreams. What innovation will occur without the constant need for survival? Does a guaranteed income allow the freedom to pursue work that provides dignity, not just a paycheck?

The idea of a guaranteed income is bold, yet not new. This idea has floated around in and about political discourse for decades. Leaders from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Hillary Clinton have already supported the idea of trusting people and just giving them the cash they need to obtain a basic floor of living. Unconditional cash transfers demonstrate no decrease in workforce participation and a significant increase in other quality of life benefits such as mental and physical health, educational outcomes, parenting, and agency. Yet despite the proven benefits, providing cash directly to poor individuals has often been met with criticism, suspicion, and fear. 

The thinking goes that people who need financial assistance are not to be trusted as their financial position reflects a moral failing rather than a societal one. Since welfare reform, extreme poverty, or people earning less than $2 a day, has risen dramatically. This data is indicative of a larger systematic emergency, not a personal failing by those individuals who are experiencing poverty. A few years ago, during my time as an Ascend Fellow, I was introduced to novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story. In this talk, Adichie warrants that if we hear only a single story, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Regarding poor people, we have been telling a single story that aligns with the stereotypes that we have become comfortable holding on to. ‘She’s just a welfare queen, just somebody’s baby mama. They’re lazy, and they don’t want to work.’ How many of us have heard that? 

We are only three months into this pilot, but the amazing women that we work with are already defying the stereotypical narrative. Arlene, despite having to work long hours and parent her two kids, is already enrolled in a GED prep course. She’s taking her exam this spring. And there’s Tanisha, who has mapped out her plan for home ownership and is working with a local credit union to secure her mortgage. And Tekola, she’s excited that for the first time she doesn’t have to stress about how she’s going to pay her bills.

So yes, the fact that the Magnolia Mother’s Trust is providing cash and a way out of poverty is important, but it is equally important that we tell the stories of the brave women participating. We know that if we are going to disrupt current financial systems within our social safety net, it will take the strategic weaving of programs directly aligned to those impacted, storytelling to disrupt dangerous narratives, and courageous policies. 

These ambitious goals cannot be met with a one-year pilot. I am optimistic, not, naive. This is why Springboard is working to develop the strategic partnerships and financial resources necessary to execute a much larger project – the goal being to implement a three-year randomized control study impacting 100 mothers annually. It is my hope that by examining the pilot as a pioneering model, a programmatic design that shifts power and influence to the people excluded and oppressed by our current economic and political systems, we can advance a method of policymaking that affirms human dignity and the longing of us all.

I am optimistic that in telling the collective stories, policymakers will take notice of all our families are able to accomplish with the breathing room cash affords and begin to rewrite policies impacting our social safety net system. Rewriting policies to better reflect the needs of families is not so far-fetched. For all of our ability to analyze and critique, we have become rooted in what if rather than what can be. This year has yet to write the story of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. But I am optimistic that our mothers are using this moment to take the breathing room they need.

Aisha Nyandoro is the CEO of Springboard To Opportunities. Springboard provides strategic, direct support to residents of federally subsidized affordable housing. The organization’s service delivery model uses a “radically resident-driven” approach designed to improve quality of life and end the generational poverty trajectory. Nyandoro has more than a decade of experience developing, implementing, and evaluating programs aimed at improving the quality of life for individuals with limited resources. She has worked in various capacities– as an academic, evaluator, philanthropist, and nonprofit executive. These varied experiences have allowed her to better understand systems and policies that impact vulnerable communities. Prior to serving with Springboard, Aisha served as a program officer with the Foundation for the Mid South. During her tenure, she strengthened the Foundation’s community development portfolio by executing a plan focused on five specific strategies aimed at transforming communities. Additionally, she led the Foundation’s place-based initiative – Community of Opportunities. Under her leadership, community leaders were able to leverage more than $20 million in federal and private funding. In addition, she established statewide, regional, and national public-private partnerships to create resources and assist the Foundation in achieving its mission and goals. She holds a BA in Psychology from Tennessee State University, a MA in Community Psychology and Urban Affairs and a PhD in Community Psychology from Michigan State University. Aisha’s commitment to community and passion for social change is demonstrated through her varied volunteer work including Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and the various boards of directors and advisory councils to which she lends her expertise and service.  Aisha has received multiple honors, including recognition as a fellow of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation Community Leadership Network and Ascend at the Aspen Institute.   Aisha’s life mission is to holistically and compassionately lift families out of cycles of poverty. When not working to transform impoverished communities, she is a wife and mommy to the best two little boys in the world. Nyandoro is a 2015 Aspen Institute Ascend Fellow.

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