In America, black women are disproportionately likely to live in poverty. While the official poverty rate in the U.S. hovers around 12%, it increases to around 21% when you factor in gender and race. Motherhood, and the exorbitant costs of raising a childhood in America, further compound the issue.
A new year-long basic income pilot launching in December in Jackson, Mississippi, aims to address the wealth disparities around race, gender, and motherhood by equipping black mothers with $1,000 a month. The pilot, called Magnolia Mother’s Trust, will launch with 15 women receiving the stipend. Aisha Nyandoro, the CEO of Springboard to Opportunities, a Jackson-based nonprofit leading the program, aims to eventually scale it to reach at least 100 families.
Basic income programs operate around the principle that providing marginalized populations with enough capital to bring them above the poverty line will create benefits for both the recipients of the cash, but also for their larger communities. The various basic income pilot programs that have launched in recent years have met mixed fates. Y Combinator launched a pilot project in Oakland, California, but is waiting to scale and study it further out of concerns that the additional money would cause recipients to lose state benefits. In Ontario, the newly elected conservative government has called for an early termination to a robust basic income pilot that was, by all accounts, delivering considerable benefits to the 4,000 low-income residents it reached.
Most basic income programs so far haven’t been universal, and have focused giving recipient’s funds to low-income people. But Magnolia Mother’s Trust is the first to target an even more specific demographic. In aiming to support specifically black mothers, Nyandoro wants to call attention to the issue of entrenched, systemic poverty in communities–particularly Jackson, where 80% of the population is black, and around 30% lives below the poverty line–and how deliberate, focused financing can help alleviate some of the associated pressures.
Through her work with Springboard, a five-year-old nonprofit that builds out resident-driven support systems for people in affordable housing, Nyandoro has carried out extensive conversations with people living in poverty. But even though Springboard effectively connects low-income residents with community resources and opportunities, “I began to see a disconnect between the work that our organization was doing and the ability of families to lift themselves out of poverty,” Nyandoro says. What was standing in their way, she heard over and over from residents–but especially women–was a lack of cash. “People just don’t have enough money to access basic things, like food at the end of the month when food stamps have run out,” she says.
Those conversations, Nyandoro says, reinforced a thought she’d been having for quite some time. “Why can’t we just give people cash and get out of their way?” Too often, especially in the United States, assistance for people living below the poverty line comes in the form of a voucher or a credit, freighted with stipulations and restrictions, that often limit how people are able to access crucial resources like food and school supplies. For Nyandoro, the option instead to equip people with enough money to restore dignity and enable people to not just survive, but to build a self-determined life for themselves around their own choices, held significant appeal.
While she initially aimed to launch a three-year program that would reach 100 families, Nyandoro decided to first roll out a pilot to collect data and proof-of-concept that a basic income approach would create tangible benefits for black mothers living in poverty. “What we’re doing is a bit different, and we need to take small bites to prove that our approach works,” she says. After holding conversations with women in affordable housing in Jackson, Nyandoro will select recipients of the monthly stipends via a lottery system. “It’s the only way to ensure that our approach is equitable,” she says.
She also wanted to be fully transparent with women about both the risks and the benefits of a basic income before offering them the opportunity to enter the lottery. While the $1,000 a month will, in many cases, nearly double the annual income of recipients (incomes in the poorest communities in Jackson hover around $15,500 per year), the lift in income may mean that some women see reductions in benefits like SNAP, which are administered in accordance with income. “Our social support system is punitive,” Nyandoro says. “We were very adamant about making the stipend $1,000 so we could be able to offer women enough resources to offset any penalties they may encounter.”
To carry out the pilot, Springboard partnered with the Economic Security Project, a philanthropy chaired by Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes (who recently wrote a book making the case for basic income) Peers.org founder Natalie Foster, and Dorian Warren, president of the Center for Community Change Action. ESP, which will also be financing another basic income pilot launching next year in Stockton, California, provided some grant funding to Magnolia Mother’s Trust pilot, which Nyandoro was able to leverage in order to bring in more money for the program to Springboard.
Over the course of the pilot program, which will last 12 months, Nyandoro will be collecting qualitative data on how the additional money impacts the women’s lives, participation in community, and spending patterns. The 15 women receiving the stipend will also have access, if they wish, to support through Springboard about how to budget the funds, and how to use the opportunity to set themselves and their families up for success at the end of the program. Nyandoro is hopeful that the pilot will provide the necessary proof-of-concept to eventually scale the program to reach many more mothers living in poverty, both in Jackson and in other communities disproportionately affected by entrenched poverty across the U.S. “This is an opportunity for us to say: Let’s right these injustices,” Nyandoro says. “This is racial justice, this is economic justice, this is social justice.”