In Mississippi, a long-running guaranteed basic income program is helping Black mothers

By Zachary Green

Original article:

In the U.S. 30% of families headed by Black mothers live below the poverty line. But one initiative in Mississippi is trying to address that problem with a guaranteed income program Magnolia Mother’s Trust is giving $1,000 a month to 100 working Black moms in Jackson — hoping to prove that extra monthly stipend can go a long way toward lifting Black women and their children out of poverty. Zachary Green reports as part of our ongoing series, “Chasing the Dream: Poverty, Opportunity and Justice in America.”

Hari Sreenivasan: As of 2020, about 30% of families in the U.S. Headed by Black mothers lived in poverty — that’s more than two and half times the national rate. In Jackson, Mississippi, a guaranteed income program is trying to help Black mothers lift themselves out of poverty. Guaranteed income provides people with a stipend — usually between $500 and $1000 a month — with no strings attached. Some praise it as an economic lifeline, others criticize it as an expensive handout. NewsHour Weekend’s Zachary Green, who has been covering guaranteed income programs for the past year, visited Jackson to learn more about the program, which is also the subject of a new documentary that premiered last month called “Inherent Good.” This story is part of our ongoing series “Chasing the Dream: Poverty, Opportunity and Justice in America.”

Zachary Green: Since 2013, Aisha Nyandoro’s nonprofit organization, Springboard To Opportunities, has worked to help families in Jackson, Mississippi living in subsidized housing.

Aisha Nyandoro: The women that we work with on average make $11,000 annually. And that’s working full time. We were doing everything from after-school programs, workforce development, and training programs. Food pantries on site, health care clinics on site in a couple of our communities. And w — really was about economic mobility and thriving.

Zachary Green: But in 2017, she had a problem. Nyandoro feared that the group’s efforts weren’t having enough of an effect on the lives of poor families in Jackson.

Aisha Nyandoro: We were not seeing a successful transition out of affordable housing. We were not moving the needle on poverty. And the reason that that mattered to us is because so many of our families, when they t — when we asked them what it is that you want for yourself, for your family, what are your goals, they talk about homeownership. They talk about living in market-rate housing. And we were seeing that we weren’t actually helping families achieve those goals.

Zachary Green: Nyandoro asked the families directly what they thought was missing.

Aisha Nyandoro: Our families told us — a myriad of stories. But every story that we heard could be addressed with cash. I pulled together a round table of moms. And I just said, “Okay. Just help me dream about what this could potentially be.”

Zachary Green: The discussion that followed led to the creation of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust — the first privately-run guaranteed income program in the country. The program launched in 2018 with $300,000 in funding from the nonprofit Economic Security Project and a private donor. It distributed $1,000 a month for one year to 20 working Black mothers living in subsidized housing. The recipients, chosen by lottery, were free to use the money in whatever way they saw fit. One of the first was 31-year-old Cajania Brown, a mother of three who was then working part time as a supermarket cashier.

Cajania Brown: I was pregnant at the time. And — I kept passin’ out at work ’cause I had vertigo, and — got couldn’t work anymore. So I go, “Okay, well, this came just in time.”

Zachary Green: Brown used the extra $1,000 a month to pay for essentials as well as take time off to be with her kids.

Cajania Brown: I got into a new bed, I got — my car fixed, just — clothes for the kids. I’d take my kids on trips. We went to the zoo. We went out to eat.

Zachary Green: The money also helped her move to a larger apartment for her growing family and raise her credit score by making and paying off credit card purchases. In addition, Magnolia Mother’s Trust provided her with counseling on topics like home ownership.

Cajania Brown: At the time I didn’t know credit was that important. Like, I knew a little things about credit, and what we’d need to make to get a house in Jackson. I knew the simple things, but you know, they was — taught us a lot.

Zachary Green: Magnolia Mother’s Trust is now serving its third group of guaranteed income recipients.

Zachary Green: So you said you started with 20 moms in the first cohort. How many moms are in the current cohort that you’re serving —

Aisha Nyandoro: One hundred.

Zachary Green: One hundred moms —

Aisha Nyandoro: Last year we had 110. Next year we’ll have at least 100. So it’s like we started from the bottom, now we’re here. It feels really good.

Zachary Green: The program is now fully funded by private donors from around the country. One of the current recipients is Ashley Dawson, a 30-year-old mother of five who works as a campus enforcement officer at Chastain Middle School in Jackson. She found out she had been chosen for the program in an email last April.

Ashley Dawson: And I just couldn’t believe it. I might have read it probably ten times just to make sure that I was seein’ what I thought I was seeing, but — ’cause you know, ’cause things like this just don’t come about too quick, too often.

Zachary Green: Dawson began receiving the $1,000 a month in the midst of a trying year, in which she separated from her children’s father and her sister was killed in a shooting.

Ashley Dawson: You know, sometimes you can kinda lose insight when you go through a couple of things in life. Something as simple as your — your worth — your worthiness or — if you matter, you know? When someone do something good, you know, when you get a chance to be a part of something good, you know, just picks you up, you know? And it helps you remember who you are and what really matters.

Zachary Green: Dawson says that she’s used the extra income to pay for family holiday expenses, as well as some unexpected car repairs. She’s also saving money to move her family to a bigger home and to go back to college and finish her degree in social work. She hopes to have a career in education or start an organization to help young people deal with challenges similar to those she herself faced.

Ashley Dawson: I wanted to get an organization set up — that would be designed for teenagers, once they graduate school, preferably females, to help them have somewhere to go, to stay, if they don’t have nowhere to go. And — that will provide them somewhere to stay and to help them get on their feet.

Zachary Green: Since Magnolia Mother’s Trust began three years ago, several of its former participants have been able to purchase homes or move into market rate rental properties. Aisha Nyandoro says that the program is proof of the beneficial effects of a guaranteed income.

Aisha Nyandoro: When you give people money — without restrictions, they go about taking care of what it is that they need for themselves and their families. We’ve seen moms get out of debt. We’ve seen individuals go back to school, finish school, get better jobs. Go see family members for the first time in years because they actually have disposable income now.

Zachary Green: What do you see as the future for Magnolia Mother’s Trust? Do you see this as something that could become a permanent fixture, something that could grow to involve more people, maybe in places outside of Jackson?

Aisha Nyandoro: I don’t want Magnolia Mother’s Trust to be permanent. I feel like that would be a failure if it is permanent. I don’t think that any of the guaranteed income projects that are currently — being implemented in this country can be sustained without federal policy. I think they’re all important. I think that we are all providing critical narrative and data and conversations — that were needed to help push this country forward and to really help us divorce this ideal of cash with restrictions — But if Magnolia Mother’s Trust or any of the guaranteed income programs are still occurring five years from now, I will feel like we’ve missed the mark in a massive opportunity. So, for me, I am pushing for policy and demonstrating what is possible on a federal level.

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