Basic income recipient: ‘I was able to stay above water’

Illustration by Radio

It’s your money; spend it on whatever you need and enjoy the peace of mind.

By: Malia Wollan

“Let the money give you peace of mind,” says Brenita Burns, 38, who was one of 110 low-income Black mothers in Jackson, Miss., who received $1,000 a month last year as part of a guaranteed-income project called Magnolia Mother’s Trust. When Burns was accepted into the program, she hoped to put some of the money toward paying off her $20,000 in student loans. But by the time her first check arrived in March 2020, the country was shutting down. The first things she bought were groceries and a laptop for her 10-year-old son.

“You can do whatever you want with it,” Burns says. It’s your money, and research has shown people tend to know their own needs best.

Some of the women used their cash to hire tutors for children who were struggling with virtual learning; others paid down high-interest loans. Burns’s money meant she could care for her ill mother and be home to help her son do schoolwork online. It allowed her to buy things she wanted for herself and her son. “It felt good just to be able to go into a store with him and say, ‘What do you want?’” Burns says.

If you’re on public benefits, know that guaranteed-income money will most likely mean you’ll get less assistance. Burns had to forego over $200 a month in food stamps, and her federally subsidized rent went up. Still, on balance she netted more than she lost. Most of the now dozens of guaranteed-income pilot programs in the country have a set duration. “Enjoy it,” Burns says, “but be mindful that it will end.” If you need public assistance once your program is over, it will very likely take time to be reinstated. Try to save enough to at least cover that delay. Burns got her last check in February and is still waiting to get back on the supplemental nutrition assistance program.

Burns never told her friends or her neighbors about her guaranteed income. “Don’t talk about it,” she says. It didn’t feel fair to mention the free money when everyone wasn’t eligible to apply.

A year of the most basic economic security gave Burns time to think about how she wants to be in the world. She started writing children’s books and wants to get a master’s degree so she can be a guidance counselor.

In the end, she didn’t save much, but in a year when so many around her were drowning in debt and disease, the money helped Burns keep her family fed, housed and safe. “I was able to stay above water,” she says.


Article originally appeared in NYT:

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