Opinion: The Future of Guaranteed Basic Income Is At The Community Level

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Unconditional cash assistance is having a moment.

Even before the pandemic, there was growing recognition that our heavily work-conditioned safety net is inadequate. It was especially prone to fail households during economic downturns, exactly when aid is most needed. And it was hamstrung by the “administrative burden” of eligibility verifications, burdens which disproportionately fall on African American and Latino/x families. Then, the economic turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it an explosion of activity and interest in guaranteed income across the country.

But while it’s clear that something has shifted in the U.S. political debate, the work of long term policy change will require grassroots mobilization — starting at the city and community level and led by beneficiaries and their communities. Practitioners and decision-makers must ensure this work is well supported.

Undoubtedly, cash assistance has become a mainstream safety net idea: The Democratic Party embraced a fully refundable and unconditional Child Tax Credit as a central anti-poverty strategy, mimicking successful credits and allowances implemented in Canada, the U.K. and a host of other countries. The federal response to the pandemic included several rounds of stimulus checks (in addition to a pilot Child Tax Credit expansion). States like Vermont and New Jersey are beginning their own unconditional child allowance expansions. Over a hundred “guaranteed income” pilots have emerged in cities and counties nationwide to provide life-changing, direct assistance to over 38,000 households combined.

Despite all this, Congress failed to extend the expanded federal child tax credit. It is clear that there is more work to be done to transform dozens of city and county pilot efforts into permanent policy change at the state and federal level. Many ask what is next when the charitable and public pandemic relief (ARPA) funds — that have supported cash pilots to thousands of households — dry up.

Part of the answer lies with cities where, in the legacy of the National Welfare Rights Organization, models of recipient-driven engagement in pilot design are becoming efforts to turn beneficiaries into expert advocates. The Georgia Resilience and Opportunity Fund’s In Her Hands initiative is one such model for how to scale city-level efforts to a statewide program, aimed at both helping individuals now and building grassroots power for long-term change.

The In Her Hands initiative provides a guaranteed income of about $850 per month for two years to 650 women. While the program reaches households across the state, it grew out of Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward Economic Security Task Force, which convened to advance a cash-based economic solution to persistent inequality and poverty in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s hometown.

The task force brought together 28 community groups and leaders, including the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, City Councilmember Amir Farokhi, representatives from labor, local community developers, interfaith groups, and the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church among others, with supportive expertise from the Jain Family Institute. They found that “no matter how hard they work or smartly they budget,” Atlantans, especially Black Atlantans, struggle to make ends meet—and that a guaranteed income pilot program should be established. They advocated for a state “Georgia Work Credit,” like a state Earned Income Tax Credit. And they called for existing safety net programs, like housing assistance, to be more unconditional, and to support strategies to build Black communities’ wealth.

The results of that effort within Atlanta led to a partnership with GiveDirectly to create the In Her Hands program spanning three communities in Georgia – Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, rural southwest Georgia, and suburban College Park. The goals of the In Her Hands program are two-fold: to improve the financial well-being of program participants, and to generate insights to inform public policy broadly. To achieve the second goal, building from the ground up with community members is paramount.

Expanding on the task force’s findings, the Georgia Resilience and Opportunity Fund convened community members and organizations closest to issues of economic insecurity throughout the process of building the program. They sought to learn from similar programs that empowered potential recipients to input on the design of the program, such as the Magnolia Mother’s Trust in Jackson, Mississippi among others.

Across the country, guaranteed income pilots are turning to ways they can not only benefit their direct recipients but also push for narrative and policy change around cash in the safety net. The In Her Hands program is paving a way forward, combining cash assistance and messaging work for policy change. Specifically, the program is building a community-centered storytelling initiative focused on creating communal spaces for participants to collectively share & swap stories of economic insecurity on their own terms.

The program creates space for brave and vulnerable connection among participants and their communities, becoming a launch pad for broader mobilization on issues of financial insecurity — principally, an income floor. Within the communities the program serves, In Her Hands is building grassroots power to shape both poverty policy and poverty narratives. These efforts are the building blocks of mobilization toward sustained policy change driven by the expertise and activism of recipients.

As guaranteed income advocates, pilot practitioners, and researchers coalesce into a movement beyond the Child Tax Credit or emergency spending alone, it is time to shift the narrative around poverty and inequality by highlighting the deficiencies of our existing safety net. The next stage of work will be led by those telling their stories of having an income floor and continuing to work for greater economic opportunity for their families.

Through these stories, city, county and state-based pilots across the country are beginning to combat pernicious and cynical myths about working class families — and about people of color in particular.

The In Her Hands initiative is just one example. But it shows how community conversations can lead the way to a state-wide program that provides a fuller safety net, and how community voices can continuously shape the ways programs promote similar policies that center dignity at the state and federal levels — catalyzing momentum for a national guaranteed income program.

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