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Finding Common Purpose

In several blog posts, I’ve been diving deeper into guaranteed income as a way to ensure people can meet their basic needs and get on—and stay on—a pathway to lifelong success. Might direct cash payments—in the form of what most call universal basic income (UBI)—be an alternative to the programs that comprise America’s broken social safety net? If you measure these programs by whether they are helping people get on and stay on the pathway, they are failing. 

When it comes to UBI, we need to move beyond theory and begin to learn how UBI might add value. That’s why I’m particularly interested in how people are experimenting with the UBI alternative. I’m confident these experiments can spark the kind of dialogue we need to be having in the United States.

My last two posts were conversations with Erin Coltrera, the research and program officer for the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), which is distributing $500 a month to a group of people in that struggling California city and gathering what I believe will be very useful data that will help inform a serious discussion. SEED is a truly scientific study: the tracking includes recipients and non-recipients of the cash.

SEED, though, is only one experiment that has captured my attention. The other is taking place right now in Jackson, Mississippi—a city of about 170,000 people, more than 80% black, with a median income of $35,000 according the U.S. Census Bureau. (that’s $8,000 less than the top income cutoff point for participation in the Stockton experiment).

The experiment in Jackson—a project called the Magnolia Mother’s Trust—is quite different than in Stockton, in a very good way. It is the work of Springboard To Opportunities, in partnership with the Economic Security Project.

What makes it so different from the Stockton demonstration, and so compelling, is that it is—as Springboard characterizes all of its work—“radically resident-driven.” It is all about helping change a narrative and confronting the “criminalization of poverty” in America.

I spoke recently with Aisha Nyandoro, Springboard’s chief executive officer. I asked her to explain this “radically resident-driven” idea, which is at the center of the organization’s work. She told me it’s something Springboard prides itself on being.

“Individuals know exactly what they need to be successful,” Aisha explained. “We center our families and all the programs and services we provide based on understanding that. It is simply our responsibility to stand in partnership with them and those pieces. Any programming we provide is something our residents have said is a need they have, which varies from community to community. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach because we understand communities are different. It could be an after-school program in one community or a food pantry in another. It could be a healthcare clinic in one community or workforce development training in another. Or it could be all.”

This approach is central to changing the narrative centered on the “institutions and systems” that comprise the inadequate social safety net. “We realized that because of the punitive nature of so many of these institutions and systems, individuals never had access to someone they actually felt was on their side. All the interactions with leadership or with folks in positional power really were hierarchical. It was a lot of bureaucracy, and there were people telling folks what they could and cannot do. It was never a positive relationship or exchange. It was never just someone saying ‘I’ve got your back’.”

Aisha’s explanation reminded me of the “fundamental mindset shift” Susannah Morgan of Oregon Food Bank had described to me in a previous blog post. Susannah said it changed how she approaches her work, from “doing for” to “doing with” the people she serves.

“The Magnolia Mother’s Trust grew out of talking to families [and] the moms,” Aisha said. The conversations were about “just trying to get a better sense of what their needs were. We learned that in a lot of instances we had families with no cash resources actually coming into the house.” Sometimes the reasons had to do with some the punitive aspects of the socials safety net system, with individuals not able to take advantage of TANF [welfare] because of the restrictions, or just not being able to find gainful employment because of a lack of transportation or childcare or a number of other barriers. We run an organization that’s radically resident-driven. If our families are telling us they really do need access to cash, how do we go about doing that? That’s where Magnolia Mother’s Trust came from. It was a direct response to a call from our families.”

Right now, the project is a 12-month pilot in which 20 women are given $1000 each month in cash. “For the majority of this population, that is doubling their income.” And it’s all about giving these women agency.

As Aisha sees it, “The way social service benefits are structured currently, very little agency is given to recipients. There’s a lot of telling you how you should go about using those resources, and that’s determined by some algorithm.

For example, some formula determines that you need $400 worth of SNAP [food stamps] for you and however many kids. But in reality, you could be such an amazing couponer that you really only need $200 a month in food assistance, and you could be using that other $200 toward something else that is a need within your household.  But the way the system is set up doesn’t allow you the self-determination to make those decisions.”

The restrictions and lack of self-determination are a large part of the motivation to change the narrative. Aisha explained how the structure and restrictions combine to create the illusion that people are cheating the system—the criminalization of poverty. She explained that TANF funds are given to states by the federal government, and the states are then left to determine how to allocate those resources—and what kind of barriers they want to erect. It leads to low utilization levels of some benefits, because people don’t want to be caught in the web of “subjective” restrictions. “Your caseworker could determine that you’re not doing enough to look for a job and sanction your SNAP for up to six months, which means all of a sudden you can’t feed your babies for that time.”

As for TANF, Aisha said, “Less than 2% of the individuals in Mississippi who qualify for TANF actually utilize that resource. And for those who do, it’s about $170 a month worth of benefits.”

Aisha explained, “All of these pieces are interwoven together without the support necessary to be successful in a lot of instances. Or without the grace that families need when they’re trying to negotiate various circumstances simultaneously.”

How, I asked, did Springboard settle on $1000? Aisha told me that part of the decision really did have to do with the restrictions associated with other benefits that would be reduced if a person’s income passes a certain threshold. Springboard worked “with economists and various experts to try to figure out” a “sweet spot,” and ended up taking an educated guess of $1000 when it became impossible to get an exact figure for potential benefits decreases—“because of all the complexities of all these different systems.”

“For us, that $1000 was significant because we needed to make sure we were doing no harm. We wanted to do good without doing harm, and so we wanted to make sure that families actually had the resources necessary to live out whatever dreams are put in place, whatever goals they have.”

As it has turned out, individuals on average lost about $400 worth of other benefits, but the monthly payment covers that and still gives them an additional $600.

And how do the women participating in the Magnolia Mother’s Trust fulfill those goals and dreams? Aisha told me some wonderful stories of recipients using their own agency first to fulfill basic needs as they see them and then take steps forward on the pathway.

One mom finished her GED; she had the resources to pay for childcare so she could get that done. Another was able to go back to community college and finish her certification in phlebotomy. What made that possible was having the money to pay off some predatory debt from a for-profit college, so she could get new resources for school. When Aisha and I spoke, that mother was interviewing for jobs at doctor’s offices—“which will give her a career rather than the retail job she’s been in working for years.”

Paying off debt turns out to be a big part of how recipients have used their monthly cash—something that surely flies in the face of the false narrative about “welfare queens. “We’ve seen these women pay off, collectively, about $10,000 worth of debt,” Aisha recounted. “The majority of that has been predatory debt, not consumer debt,” like payday lenders.

In this country “we like to penalize and criminalize poor people and make it seem like they’re so irresponsible, when the reality is that there are systems designed to take advantage of individuals who live in poverty, knowing they are in a very vulnerable state.”

The way in which Aisha situated the Magnolia Mother’s Trust within the broader UBI movement was particularly interesting. “UBI provided language necessary to talk about the work,” she said. “a frame for exploring the idea of giving people money with no strings attached.” But at every turn, she stressed,  “All of our work comes out of talking to families and understanding what those needs are and being in relationship with individuals.”

That talking continues among the recipients themselves. “When we were designing this program, [the recipients] asked for an opportunity just to be able to continue to be able to build their networks and relationships with each other … [to] share and learn from each other.” Now there are regular gatherings where they get together. She described one.

“Earlier this month they got together and wanted to talk about low-cost activities they could do with their kids during the summer because a lot of times, just from a lack of knowing what’s going on in the larger community, they default to the same activities”—some of which can get rather expensive. “It’s been beautiful to see them come together and be in community with one another and celebrate and learn from each other.”

The Magnolia Mother’s Trust is building a strong case that the narrative about people who live in poverty is demonstrably wrong and that there are simple alternatives to work with them. 

Aisha’s choice of a song to close out this blog post is Tracy Chapman’s Talkin’ About a Revolution. There’s not much else to say.