Mississippi program shows how giving mothers guaranteed basic income helps children

Sequaya Coleman, with her daughter, was randomly selected to receive $1,000 a month, no strings attached, for a year from the Magnolia Mother’s Trust.

Mississippi program shows how giving mothers guaranteed basic income helps children
Mississippi program shows how giving mothers guaranteed basic income helps children

By Timothy Pratt

See original post here.

I vividly remember the day,” said Sequaya Coleman, on the phone from Jackson, Mississippi. 

“It was like winning some kind of lottery. At first, I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ I tossed the letter aside and went about my regular day.” The 36-year-old mother couldn’t believe she had been randomly selected to receive $1,000 a month, no strings attached, for a year — as part of Magnolia Mother’s Trust, a program that gives a guaranteed income to Black mothers living in public housing in Jackson, together with access to services such as financial literacy classes and meditation. 

Coleman became part of the program’s second cohort, now in its fifth year. Other guaranteed income projects nationally have found that adults living in poverty have seen benefits ranging from improving their health to furthering their education. But a report this year from Magnolia Mother’s Trust also shows far-reaching effects on children whose families receive the no-strings-attached payments.

Researchers studying the 230 families who participated in Magnolia Mother’s Trust in its first three years found that nearly three-fourths of the mothers surveyed felt more confident about parenting afterward, nearly 60% of the children reported “more joyful” family relationships, and about a third of the children had better educational opportunities such as switching to better schools. 

These results come out of Mississippi as a Washington, D.C. pilot program giving $500 a month for three years to mothers in the child welfare system recently launched, a New York program giving up to $1,000 a month for three years to mothers in poverty wrapped up its third year and a Los Angeles program giving $1,000 a month for two years to former foster children started this spring. The Mississippi program is privately funded, and many of the pilots nationwide are also backed by philanthropy or federal COVID relief funds. 

Guaranteed monthly income is an idea that is spreading across the nation, with dozens of pilot programs and a privately funded group called Mayors for a Guaranteed Income currently touring a documentary about the subject. The group, founded in 2020, has quickly grown to include more than 100 mayors. A growing body of research suggests that those programs aimed at low-income mothers or families can deliver a broad range of benefits to children, from material to emotional and psychological.

“The biggest thing is, it creates a shift in how Moms are able to parent,” said Nidal Karim, senior project manager at Social Insights Research, which published the Magnolia Mother’s Trust report. “They’re under less stress, they can spend more time with their children, and plenty of research shows what that means for children — better outcomes when it comes to mental health, school and quality of life generally.” 

“These are things families who don’t live in poverty take for granted,” Karim added. 

Coleman, who worked as a certified medical assistant when she began the program, said she was able to stop borrowing money to cover bills during the year she was enrolled, as well as pay off some debts. “Receiving the funds gave you a boost of confidence,” she said. 

Free of the constant stress borrowing had created, she was able to turn her attention to meeting one of her then 7-year-old daughter’s daughter’s dreams: to see the ocean. “My daughter had never been to the beach,” Coleman said. “I’d always been working all the time.” So, “from one day to the next,” they got in the car and drove two hours to Biloxi, Mississippi.

“I took a picture, with sand running through her fingers,” Coleman recalled. “It was one of the best moments I had with her. It gave me a sense of release.” The mother and daughter also made other trips during their year in the program, including to the Mississippi Children’s Museum, the Museum of Natural Science and a nearby state park. 

Those kinds of experiences lead children to acquire “cultural capital,” Karim said. “If you grow up in a place where you’re only interacting with people on your block when you travel — to museums and other places — and have interactions with people … this gives you an in into more spaces in society later in life.”

As executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Mother’s Outreach Network, Melody Webb is overseeing a pilot project that will give $500 a month for three years to mothers who are or have been involved with child protective services — most of whom are Black. 

“Black mothers have their children at risk of being taken by the government disproportionately — due to poverty-related reasons,” said Webb. More than 80% of children in the protective services system in Washington, D.C. are Black, far outweighing the area’s young population, which is only 52% Black. 

The Washington, D.C. pilot, with plans to include 30 families by year’s end, has the goal of “help[ing] avoid a series of negative consequences for children” — by improving the economic situation for mothers. 

Linking outcomes for mothers and children underpins these and other guaranteed income pilots, said Lisa Gennetian, an early learning policy professor at Duke University. “You can’t answer questions about children without also answering questions about parents,” Gennetian said. “Their well-being is fundamental to children’s well-being.” 

Guaranteed income programs in other parts of the world are further along in demonstrating positive impacts on children – including “reducing hunger, risky behaviors and improvements in school attendance,” Gennetian said. 

In the U.S., “it’s hard to give cash unconditionally,” she added — noting how some policymakers oppose ideas such as guaranteed income by alleging that it will disincentivize work or lead to “irresponsible behaviors” such as drugs or alcohol, despite these ideas having been disproven. She hopes the continued success of pilot programs and a growing body of research help increase support for using guaranteed income as a tool to unlock potential for low-income adults and children.

Gennetian contributed to that body as a co-author of a 2022 study attempting to measure the impact of giving $333 a month to mothers in five U.S. cities on brain development in their children. Mothers receive the money until just after their children’s fourth birthday.

She and the other researchers found that babies in households receiving $333 monthly showed more brainwave activity associated with learning and cognitive development than babies in a control group whose households only received $20 a month. Gennetian noted that previous research has shown how “poverty has negative impacts on child development.” The program she studied, called “Baby’s First Years,” hopes to continue demonstrating how reducing poverty can positively impact early childhood development.

Magnolia Mother’s Trust is planning to increase its focus on outcomes for children in coming years, including focus groups and surveys, said Aisha Nyandoro, founder and CEO of Springboard to Opportunities, the nonprofit organization that oversees the program. One thing the program won’t attempt to measure is school-related data like grades — because “too many outliers impact school outcomes,” she said, including per-student funding, for which Mississippi ranks 48th in the nation. 

Instead, Nyandoro said, “We focus on joy and agency [in the lives of mothers and children], and documenting stress in real time.” Coleman said her ability to manage stress has greatly improved since participating in the program, after learning to meditate — one of a host of additional services offered. 

Karim, the researcher, noted that these services differentiate the Mississippi program from many other guaranteed-income pilots. “It’s not just the money — it’s also how they interact with moms, the wraparound services provided … It’s important to talk about guaranteed income packaged in a way that treats people with dignity — particularly poor, Black mothers,” she said. 

“We don’t see a lot of Black people in our community meditating,” Coleman said. “I still do it every day.” The mother of two — now with an infant son — also noted that her daughter’s interactions with the people in the program, both staff and other families, as well as activities included in the program such as group trips, “made her open up more.” 

“Incorporating kids [into the program], letting them say how they felt, helped turn them into little leaders,” she said.

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