The Rise of Guaranteed Income Programs Could Give Low-Wage Women a Crucial Lifeline

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King’s directive and the idea of dignity resonated years later with Compton Mayor Aja Brown, who is part of the group of mayors piloting guaranteed income. Compton’s program, known as the Compton Pledge, kicked off this year, targeting 800 residents with $300 to $600 monthly payments for two years. It’s one of the most expansive guaranteed income trials in terms of recipients in the country, with several built-in parameters to ensure equity. It’s designed to take on residents who are representative of Compton’s diversity — the city is 68 percent Latinx and 30 percent Black — and skews toward serving those who are unbanked, formerly incarcerated and undocumented, the population least likely to get aid. Brown also expects to serve women disproportionately.

“We fully recognize that lifting women out of poverty lifts their entire families,” Brown said.

“My mother worked every day of my life, and she was a hard worker, made sacrifices, no excuses,” said Brown, who was raised with her twin brother by her single mother, an administrative assistant at a jet propulsion laboratory. “People that are in poverty are not lazy. They work extremely hard — many times having two or three jobs just to be able to afford basic necessities. Guaranteed income would have transformed not only my mother’s life but even my life.”

The payments, Brown said, were enough to make a difference, but wouldn’t stop someone from seeking work.

In pilots so far, there’s been little evidence that guaranteed income payments disincentivize work. Data from the first year of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust found that the percentage of participants who were able to pay bills without additional support rose from 37 percent to 80 percent.

“People, regardless of their economic status, have a desire to grow and do better than their parents did,” Brown said. “A stipend — whether it’s $600 or $1,000 — is not going to take the hope and dream and the motivation for people to strive to be more and to live better.”

Malawa’s Abundant Birth Project in San Francisco also cites financial freedom and dignity to spend money how it is needed as a draw to guaranteed income.

The project, led by racial equity collective Expecting Justice, will provide $1,000-a-month payments to 150 Black and Pacific Islander mothers through their pregnancy and six months after childbirth. Preterm births are correlated with poor health outcomes, and in San Francisco, Black babies are almost twice as likely as white babies to be born early; Pacific Islanders see a preterm birth rate of more than 10 percent — three times higher than the national rate for Asian and Pacific Islanders.

The group wanted to address the causes of preterm births to try to prevent them, said Malawa, who is also a pediatrician.

“The beauty of cash is that we can respect that Black and Pacific Islander mommas are not a monolith,” she said. “We can give them the dignity of deciding how they themselves want to address the financial stress as opposed to us deciding for them in a very paternalistic way what should get paid for and how we are going to pay for it, which is what a lot of our benefits programs look like.”

The pandemic is, at least, creating a space for a conversation about what shape aid can take after it’s once again become clear that people of color are most likely to get stuck in the cycle of poverty.

The idea of guaranteed income has gotten more high-profile interest. Vice President Kamala Harris proposed during her campaign to send cash payments to middle-income families of up to $500 a month. President Joe Biden has at least considered it, speaking to Yang’s nonprofit, Humanity Forward, about the topic of recurring payments late last year. And a new movement led by Girls Who Code founder and CEO Reshma Saujani is calling for a Marshall Plan for Moms, asking for guaranteed payments to mothers at least in the short term to help cover basic needs with many schools and daycares closed or open on less reliable schedules. The group, backed by #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and actor Eva Longoria, recently published a letter to Biden pushing for the plan in a full-page ad in The New York Times.

Nyandoro, who was one of the first to set up a program with Magnolias, said the emergence of more guaranteed income pilots will help groups like hers make the case at the federal level and provide proof of concept.

“We’re changing the narrative of how we go about addressing poverty,” Nyandoro said. “Narrative is so important, and we don’t have those conversations enough about the role that narrative plays in our policies. We don’t know each other and so if we don’t know each other, we hold on to these narratives that are damaging and ill-informed.”

An administration that is friendly to the topic is a welcome sign for her. But as someone who has been working in the space of guaranteed income for years, Nyandoro is wary of whether perception has changed enough to really push the idea further.

The pandemic made the idea trendy, she said, and she worries people will then move on. “We don’t need this to be a moment,” she said. “We need this to be a movement.”

Because ultimately, the programs that cities and nonprofits are piloting will expire, and a long-term solution is not yet in place.

Nichols said she could not be more grateful for the Magnolia program, which helped her at a time of crisis. But she is now in her last month of payments, and so far the money has gone to her most immediate needs: keeping her car running, paying rent, buying clothes for her children. She’s applied to jobs, but the pandemic has made daycare schedules unreliable, and work schedules don’t always cooperate.

“You believe in your heart that you’re going to be able to work those hours. But that may not always work,” Nichols said. “Sometimes I work a little bit outside of my city — I might work in another city from where I live. But gas has always been an issue.”

It’s a cycle that feels oppressive, she says on the phone, her battery at 1 percent, her kids asking to speak with her.

“I’m alone, I’m alone, I’m alone raising them,” she said. “I try, I try I try, but even though I know I can’t work like I want to, I still keep trying.”

She’s wondering what other help there could be for her. But the call drops before she can finish explaining.

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