LaKeshia Jones struggles every month to make ends meet. Her work as a nanny doesn’t always come with guaranteed hours. Sometimes she’s forced to request extensions on bill payments or lean on family and friends for cash.
Even with government assistance, the money never seems to stretch far enough for her and her four children, a set of 14-year-old twins and two others ages 12 and ten.
But lately Jones feels more hopeful, thanks to a new program in Jackson, Mississippi, that guarantees her a basic level of income every month. The year-long pilot program, called the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, aims to address wealth disparities by providing Black mothers with $1,000 in cash every month for a year. The program launched in December, and Jones is one of 16 Black women receiving the stipend.
“It’s made a big difference,” Jones told Rewire.News a week before Christmas. “I was able to pay the bills without extensions and I finished Christmas shopping.”
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The Magnolia Mother’s Trust is a project of Springboard to Opportunities, a Jackson-based nonprofit that aims to connect families living in federally subsidized housing with community resources and programs.
Springboard to Opportunities works with families in affordable housing, holding focus groups to hear directly from residents about their needs, said Sarah Stripp, the organization’s senior community specialist. A common theme emerged in these focus groups: a need for more cash to pay the bills.
“We would do financial coaching programs and would talk to families about budgeting and there was a recognition again and again that cash is very powerful and very needed because so many of our families, their average income is around $11,000 annually, and after you’ve paid bills and paid for food, there’s nothing else left,” she said. “Then the only form of benefit you can get is some kind of voucher on housing or food, and it’s so restrictive on what you can buy that often times parents don’t have what they need to provide for the basic needs of their families.”
The Magnolia Mother’s Trust focuses solely on Black mothers, who are disproportionately more likely to live in poverty in the United States. According to the National Women’s Law Center, 21.4 percent of Black women in the United States lived in poverty in 2016, while the overall U.S. poverty rate was 12.7 percent.
“We recognize that Black women historically have been very left out of conversations and opportunities for advancement, particularly in Mississippi,” Stripp said, noting that the women Springboard works with find ways to be entrepreneurs, with work like doing hair or cleaning houses—work that is often underpaid. “How do we provide an income through that sort of work and how do we provide a living wage for people working hard in those spaces that have not always been valued?”
The Jackson, Mississippi, basic income program is the latest experiment in giving cash payments to people with low incomes. Ontario provided 4,000 Canadians with a basic income before conservative lawmakers ended the program early. Hawaii’s Democratic-held legislature in 2017 passed a bill supporting a basic income for state residents. Stockton, California, 80 miles from the extreme wealth of Silicon Valley, will start its own basic income pilot program in February, giving $500 a month to 100 residents of low-income neighborhoods. Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs has been a leading proponent of universal basic income, which would provide an income floor for everyone—not just those in poverty.
The concept of a basic income in the United States is hardly new: President Richard Nixon in the late 1960s toyed with the idea of basic income as federal policy.
The way the system is set up now traps low-income families into minimum-wage jobs that offer few opportunities for advancement, Stripp said. Families face stacks of paperwork to apply for government programs like Medicaid or food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and must meet onerous Republican-backed work requirements.
“If the state is telling them they have to work, then they will take the first job bagging groceries or working at a fast food restaurant that doesn’t give them a chance to actually think long term,” Stripp said. “They get stuck in these minimum wage jobs, which we know aren’t giving people enough to live off of, and that don’t allow employees to have benefits or take time off.”
One in nine U.S. workers gets paid too little to lift them out of poverty, even when working full time, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Women are more likely than men to be part of the working poor, and Black women are twice as likely as white women to be among the working poor, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2016, 3.4 million full-time wage and salary workers were classified as the working poor.
Low-wage workers rarely have access to paid sick time, leaving them with few options but to go to work sick or risk losing wages.
Jones says she doesn’t feel too much pressure to go to work when she or her children are sick, mostly because she has the option of leaning on family for help if she comes up short financially at the end of the month. Her hours as a nanny are sporadic, sometimes reaching full-time status and other times not, which makes budgeting and financial planning difficult. The $1,000 monthly stipend lets her actually plan for her family’s future, something she couldn’t do when she was living paycheck to paycheck.
“For the most part, I want to save it, so I know I will have money when I need it,” Jones said. “I’ll be able to pay the bills on time and not have to get extensions. In the future I know the kids want to start doing more things at school and I’ll be able to pay for that. I’ll be able to pay for a tutor for my son. It’s going to help a lot.”
Jones loves working with kids, and a few years ago looked into early childhood education programs, but with no transportation to get her to and from classes, she opted not to enroll. While she doesn’t know yet if she’ll take that leap in the future, the money from the Magnolia Mother’s Trust is allowing her to lay a foundation and think more long term about her career.
This is one of the central goals of the program, Stripp said. A basic income not only allows mothers in the program to meet their family’s needs, but gives them the freedom to look at life’s bigger picture.
“Being able to have this breathing room, this cash, will give families time and space to think about what they want for their kids and their own lives,” she said. “And it doesn’t contribute to this frantic pace of just being in survival mode all the time.”
Fifteen women participating in the pilot program were chosen via lottery, Stripp said, while one woman was sponsored by someone in the Jackson community. Over the next 12 months, project organizers will gather qualitative data on how the monthly payments affect participants’ lives, spending patterns, and community involvement, with a longer-term goal of expanding the program to more families.
Supplying families with no-strings-attached cash payments differs from today’s so-called safety net, where families with low incomes are often saddled with burdensome application processes and eligibility requirements to access assistance like food stamps, said Natalie Foster, co-chair and co-founder of the Economic Security Project, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for a basic income. The Economic Security Project partnered with Springboard to Opportunities to help fund the Magnolia Mother’s Trust along with private donations.
“Everybody’s circumstances are different and cash has the unique ability to be versatile in people’s lives. One month I may need money to go to my car, another month I might be able to make a different decision about the food I feed my family or even put food on the table in the first place,” Foster said. “Everyone deserves an income floor. No matter what you do in the labor market, you have value. And we, as the richest nation on earth, can make it happen if we have the political will to do so.”