Guaranteed Income Programs: A Potential Lifeline for Low-Income Women of Color in Crisis

This is one in a series of articles about the pandemic and America’s First Female Recession. See more here.

Low-income women of color in America bear the weight of racism, sexism and classism – both in their interactions with other people, and more insidiously, baked into the nation’s policies, systems and cultural assumptions.  

As Sally Sim and Dedrick Asante-Muhammad noted in the post that launched this series, these women were left in the most precarious positions to deal with the pandemic. Day-to-day disruptions turned into severe crises due to the nation’s lack of supportive policies (a higher minimum wage, guaranteed paid sick/family medical/maternity leave, and universal healthcare, among others), systemic discrimination and disenfranchisement, devaluing of their work (often in the service industry or providing care to the elderly, children and other family members). Those are jobs that can’t be done remotely in a pandemic. 

Reversing these systemic injustices and supporting these women will not be accomplished by any one silver bullet. A combination of shifts in policies, systems, environments and culture is necessary. One piece of this puzzle that is currently being explored in small pockets across the country is giving low-income residents direct, recurring cash payments – no strings attached and no questions asked. These guaranteed income programs – unlike universal basic income – are targeted to low-income populations, including sometimes specifically low-income women or low-income women of color. They are not intended to replace the existing safety net, but rather supplement it. 

With interest in such approaches piqued by Andrew Yang’s advocacy for universal basic income in the 2020 Democratic primaries, and further by the stresses of the pandemic, the U.S. is seeing a proliferation of guaranteed income pilot programs, at least 11 across the country. These efforts are fueled by a growing group of nonprofit organizations, city leaders (in particular, the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income coalition) and philanthropists. 

One such program, The Magnolia Mother’s Trust in Jackson Mississippi, is led by the nonprofit organization Springboard to Opportunities. Springboard has been providing supportive services to families living in affordable housing since 2013, and began their guaranteed income pilot in December 2018. The program provides participants $1,000 cash each month for 12 months and is the first such program to target extremely low-income families headed by an African American female living in affordable housing in the United States. The program provided payments to 20 women in its first year and 110 in its second year. 

“About 95% of that population [of families in affordable housing] is Black mothers,” said Sarah Stripp, program manager of The Magnolia Mother’s Trust. “That overrepresentation of this one community is on its own enough to show that these women have been pushed into low-wage jobs that do not provide enough money for their family to survive, let alone thrive, or participate in any wealth-building activities.” 

Springboard prioritizes listening directly to the families they work with, employing a range of community conversations, one-on-one conversations and focus groups to provide the basis for the organization’s programming and strategies, from development through implementation and evaluation. It is through these conversations that they heard again and again from mothers that they did not need another program or voucher, with the associated hoops to jump through, but rather cash. 

“Our current, punitive welfare system is riddled with paternalistic measures, such as work requirements and required parenting classes, based on false assumptions that so often surround low-income women and especially Black women,” said Stripp. “We wanted to create a program instead that was built on trust and dignity. We trusted our mothers when they told us what they needed was cash, and we trust them to be the experts on their own lives, knowing how to spend the money to best care for their families and meet their needs.” 

This combination of cash, trust and dignity may be a vital piece of the puzzle in providing low-income women of color a lifeline – out of the current crisis of the pandemic as well as the longstanding crises brought about by decades of unjust policies, systems and cultural assumptions. 

Vinu Ilakkuvan is passionate about supporting and strengthening multi-sector community efforts to address the upstream, root drivers of health. Through her consulting practice, PoP Health, LLC, Vinu provides a range of consulting services (including in the areas of community collaboration, research, and communication) in this space. Vinu holds a DrPH in Health Behavior and a MS in Health Communications, and teaches and advises thesis students at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. 

Photo by Leighann Blackwood on Unsplash

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