As we approach Black History Month in February and inch closer to the election, politicians are eager to tout their solutions to the economic disadvantages Black Americans face. When the median household income of Black families is one-tenth that of white families in America, and — according to some experts — median Black wealth may reach zero as time goes on, it’s time for bold ideas.
While we approach these problems with urgency, it’s important that we not repeat the mistakes of the past. In ceding policy crafting to politicians, think tanks and academics (traditionally white and wealthy institutions); we lose the valuable insight of marginalized communities.
“You simply cannot solve a problem without including the voices, leadership, and wisdom of the people closest to that problem. Guaranteed income is no exception,” said Economic Security Project Senior Fellow Mia Birdsong in her new podcast by The Nation, More Than Enough. The activist and writer brings her unique lens to the question of unconditional cash, and underscores the importance of relying on the lived experience of marginalized communities in this four-part podcast series.
In her second episode, “Poverty Can Be Solved. Just Trust Poor People,” Birdsong introduces her listeners to Aisha Nyandoro, CEO of Springboard to Opportunities. Her guaranteed income project, the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, didn’t emerge from a think tank or a candidate platform. Black mothers living in extreme poverty told her that what they really needed wasn’t training programs or financial planning seminars, it was cash.
Nyandoro believes it’s the toxic stress, anxiety of poverty and paternalistic nature of many outdated safety net programs that makes it so hard to escape poverty. “If you don’t have to constantly think about or worry about an emergency, think about the brilliance that will manifest,” she says.
In a separate podcast produced by Aspen Ascend, Nyandoro dives deep into the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, giving listeners a first-hand look at how this guaranteed income trial program works. We hear from Ebony Beals, a low-income housing resident and Springboard to Opportunities participant in Jackson, Mississippi, who described her frustration as she jumped through hoops to try to get cash benefits through TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families):
“Once I did apply, they were like…‘it’s you and three other children, ok, so we can give you $130 a month…you have to come in and volunteer 37 hours a week.’ I’m like, when am I ever supposed to be able to work?”
From this frustration came an idea for a program that offered cash, no strings attached. In addition to the important work being done on the ground, there is a growing effort among Congressional leaders — in particular, women of color — to move legislation that guarantees an income floor to poor and middle-class Americans. Right now, Senator Kamala Harris, Representative Rashida Tlaib, Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, and Representative Gwen Moore form a kind of “Cash Squad” through their respective bills to provide refunds to families struggling to make ends meet through a reform of the tax code. These women have big bold visions for how to remedy the ills of income inequality in this country, and they are pushing forward bold legislation to get us closer to that vision.
Because of the work of all of these women, we’re all a little bit closer to a world where people don’t have to make impossible decisions about whether to stay at home with a sick kid or go to work so they can make rent — a world in which we recognize everyone’s inherent worthiness and dignity.