If guaranteed income is an attempt to provide people with more resources—resources that come with very few restrictions—it demands a conversation with the people who would most benefit from it. It also demands a conversation about deservedness. When we ask “How much would it be?” “Who would get it?” And “How would we pay for it?” what we are really asking is who deserves more and who doesn’t.
I’m not the only one who thinks Guaranteed income is a realistic option, either—it’s actually being tried out as we speak. Presidential hopeful Andrew Yang advocates for Guaranteed Income as part of his platform. Aisha Nyadoro’s project—The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which you heard about in Episode 2 [link to episode]—is getting ready to launch their second round of a guaranteed income project in Jackson, Mississippi. The city of Stockton, California, and its mayor Michael Tubbs are also running a demonstration of Guaranteed Income right now—they are working to build an economy that grants everyone the right to have enough to get by.
Over the last two years, I’ve talked to wide-ranging audiences about guaranteed income. One of the things that consistently gets fretted about is the boldness of guaranteed income. People have said to me, What will poor people do with that money? The Right will never go for it. How will we pay for it? And I can’t help but think of the people who thought that ending slavery was too hard, to bold an idea.
Too many of us have become convinced that the rules, as written by fear, scarcity, and avarice, are the ones we must play by.
We don’t. We have to be willing to dream our most courageously when it comes to policy and systems change, because we cut ourselves off from the best possible outcomes if we start compromising our ideal before we begin. So let’s be bold, let’s be courageous, and let’s start by recognizing that this country has more than enough wealth—enough money, enough talent, enough courage—for all of us.
More Than Enough was developed by Next River Productions. Created and hosted by Mia Birdsong. Audio engineering and music by Nino Moschella. Script development and production by Allison Cook. The content of this podcast was informed by the stories of hundreds of people across the country, only some of whom you heard from. Thank you to everyone who took the time to speak with me and share their story.
Support for the production of More Than Enough was provided by a few generous folks and the Economic Security Project, an organization advancing cash-based interventions in the United States and reigning in corporate monopolies.
More Than Enough is a project of The Nation Magazine.
Tia Hall: I’ll just share one little thing that I have a couple girlfriends, won’t name them, he’ll choke me, but we have this Sisterhood of The Floating Twenty and we don’t keep track of who has the $20 or why you need the $20. If you need to get your nails done, go get that. We need that space for joy. So gosh, I started thinking about how can that be the sisterhood of the floating a hundred or something like that.
Mia Birdsong: Tia Hall is on the leadership team at Spirit House, a social justice and cultural organization in Durham, North Carolina. Like so many of the people I talked with about guaranteed income she believes that caring for your loved ones and caring for yourself are not two separate things. When you’re struggling to make ends meet, that becomes both harder and more important. My conversation with Tia brought up so many of the themes we’ve explored over the last three episodes around deservedness, how impossible we’ve made it for people to get what they need and how we would all be better off if more of us were better off. I’m Mia Birdsong and this is the final episode of More Than Enough.
Mia Birdsong: As she talked about the Sisterhood of The Floating 20, Tia moved almost immediately from talking about scaling this informal network of support to the weight of feeling scrutinized for what you do with the money.
Tia Hall: I just know what it means to sit and just be stressed about the bills. And then if somebody helps you, then this feeling of how do I make sure that I show that I’m accountable and a good steward of the money and that they don’t see me out spending a little extra because we have this uniform for what you’re supposed to look like when you’re poor. So poor person can’t have anything extra that. And I would want to take that burden off.
Mia Birdsong: Part of what has been so striking for me as I’ve learned from the people I’ve been in conversation with, is that they’ve challenged me to excavate the ways I still hold to a bootstrappy hard-work-is-proof-of-deservedness-orientation. I still hold this not for people who are getting screwed by systems that are clearly rigged against them, but I hold this belief toward myself. I slip through the cracks in the system and get to live what appears to be a very traditional American dream reality with my house and husband and kids and dog.
Mia Birdsong: I’m very easy to hold up as an example that it’s possible to be born a poor black girl in America and make it. Yes, I have and do work my ass off. Yes, I am smart and amazing and shiny and it’s much more pleasing for my ego if I focus on my talents and abilities as the primary reason for my success. But that’s a lie. It’s a lie that is used to tell others who grew up like me, that they are failures if they haven’t made it, and it’s a lie that is used to tell me that I’m better than people who don’t make it and therefore more deserving. My proximity to the American dream is seductive. There’s comfort in believing the myth because it looks and feels awfully good for me, but it’s just a veneer of comfort and it doesn’t even provide what it promises and ultimately it leaves too many people behind.
Tia Hall: You lose money when you don’t come in, so if your kid is sick and you can’t come to work, you’re not making any money.
Speaker 4: There’s this sense of chain, maybe I didn’t make the right decision. Maybe my family didn’t make the right decision and this is why we’re in this space. What I’m learning and having reinforced over and over is that this is very systemic. It’s structural. It’s intentional. This didn’t happen overnight and so it’s not going to be undone overnight.
Trista Harris: There are communities of color in the United States that have been extracted from for so much time and disenfranchised in every possible way that that gap is a lot larger than it is for a lot of white folks.
Speaker 5: Everybody’s got to eat, everybody’s got to have a place to live. If you don’t have access to that through a traditional economy, you’re going to find access to that through a black market economy or through an underground economy. You have no option other than to eat. There’s so much money, there’s so much wealth that is concentrated into so few people’s hands. That’s not because they work hard. It’s not because they’re smarter than everyone. That’s because we as a country have allowed for that within the structure of our economy and the structure of our economic system and we can decide not to allow that anymore.
Speaker 7: Anytime I go big vision America implodes. It just would not destroy everybody but it would not exist the way that it currently does, because I feel like in order to actually pay it back reparations to folks the country as we know it would have to be completely demolished and start from the beginning.
Mia Birdsong: I started this project because I know that solutions that don’t include the voices of those who are most impacted are doomed to fail. I wanted to bring the voices of folks who are struggling to make ends meet into the guaranteed income conversation. If guaranteed income is an attempt to provide people with more resources, resources that come with very few restrictions, it demands a conversation with the people who would most benefit from it. It also demands a conversation about deservedness. When we ask how much would it be, who would get it and how would we pay for it? What we are really asking is who deserves more and who doesn’t.
Mia Birdsong: I’m not the only one who thinks guaranteed income is a realistic option. Believe it or not, president Nixon almost moved forward with a guaranteed income program in 1969. Current presidential hopeful Andrew Yang advocates for guaranteed income as part of his platform. There have also been pilots in Canada, the Netherlands, Scotland and Iran. It’s actually being tried right now in the United States. Aisha Nyandoro’s project, the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which you heard about in episode two has been running a guaranteed income project in Jackson, Mississippi. The city of Stockton, California and its mayor Michael Tubbs are also running a demonstration. They are working to build an economy that grants everyone the right to have enough to get by. Mayor Tubbs has this to say about the project?
Michael Tubbs: Well, I think the demonstration is important because we’re challenging the notion of deserving. I think the argument we’re making that as an American, every citizen, every human being, you deserve an economic floor. You deserve to have the basic necessities met. Especially when you think of the fact that the majority of poor people work. I mean if folks don’t work it’s because they don’t work for variety of reasons where they can’t find jobs because of their records or because there’s a sick parent or because they’re staying home doing child-rearing work, there’s a lot of reasons why. So yeah, I think I’m most excited about that conversation we’ve been having over the past year.
Mia Birdsong: Stockton is the first city in the United States to try out guaranteed income. Unlike me, mayor Tubbs first heard about guaranteed income in college and is interested in its application. Not in some utopian future, but right now.
Michael Tubbs: Well, the first time I heard of guaranteed income was in college. When I read, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community by Dr. King. I spent a lot of time studying Dr. King, reading his biography, listening to his speeches, but that part of his legacy was never taught to me and I was familiar with the poor people’s campaign, then knew towards the end of his life he was moving towards civil rights, including economic justice. But I never heard this idea of a guaranteed income. So when I read it I was fascinated. I said, Oh wow, what happened with this idea, where’s it gone? And I thought, I said it would be really interesting to see what would happen in this generation. And seeing if we could bring this idea back as an answer not to a future but to the present.
Mia Birdsong: And here he is talking about what he’s been learning as they pulled together their guaranteed income project in Stockton.
Michael Tubbs: I know the biggest thing for me in my own learning and growth is just trusting people to be the best decision makers and actors for what’s good for them and their families. And then I think in the same vein just really this ultimate agency. If you trust people, they could generally figure it out for themselves and also this idea that people don’t have money because they know that how to manage money. I’ve learned the past year that no people don’t have money to manage, so we don’t know whether they can manage money or not, frankly.
Mia Birdsong: I get excited about guaranteed income in part because I know it could really help a lot of people. There was a real and practical power to giving people cash, but another thing I appreciate about it is that it presents us with an opportunity to rethink our overall approach to policy. I’m thinking about policies that impact education, healthcare, land use and the safety net system, all of that, but also policies that we should understand as social policy, like tax structures and banking regulations.
Mia Birdsong: We need to look at both policies that could create a solid floor beneath us as well as policies that create a ceiling because unfettered wealth hoarding by those at the top of the money scale has a direct cost to those at the bottom. If we want a just society, we have to address multiple inequalities including the fact that some of us don’t have enough because some of us have too much. Those with too much will have to give some of it back. Policy is in many ways a proxy for how we want to treat each other. A way for us to say what we think other human beings should have. For all of our sakes, we need policies to reflect a better kinder, more generous version of who we are. Of course, we don’t have to wait for guaranteed income to do things differently. Here again is Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance exploring the false choices we are given when it comes to both economic and social policy.
Ai-jen Poo: I often think that we’re given false choices and a lot of the questions that I get asked about, isn’t this another big expensive entitlement program? Actually, no. It’s like we are paying in really expensive ways, expensive both emotionally and financially for these things anyway, and what we need to be doing is figuring out how we create new, much more effective programs that actually help us achieve our goals, which is to support people to work and have their families too.
Mia Birdsong: She also makes clear that universal programs like guaranteed income are just a starting point.
Ai-jen Poo: So, more universal programs like universal basic income and universal family care, that kind of set a new starting point for the 21st century that reflects the realities of how work is structured and how families need to be structured in order to support a new kind of wellbeing in the future. Of course, families need to take responsibility and save and be responsible. Absolutely, and to me that doesn’t at all displace the need for public policy solutions and public programs that actually support families to succeed. People want to work, people want to take care of their families. Both of those things are good things. Why wouldn’t we set up public structures and systems to support that?
Mia Birdsong: As Ai-jen reminds us, we can tackle multiple challenges at once. Addressing the tensions and conflicts that those challenges give rise to and be kind to each other in the process. She also reminds us that there’s plenty to go around.
Ai-jen Poo: One piece that I think is really important to always say is that our economy is actually pretty healthy in that it’s generating a ton of wealth. It’s just that that wealth isn’t getting to the everyday people who are helping to generate it.
Mia Birdsong: I want to spread that money around. I want the big bold policy that she’s talking about and I also want the kindness and care she’s talking about. I know we’re capable of having both because we see it in a wide variety of communities all the time. There are formally and informally organized groups of people all over the country who insist on thinking expansively about their resources and start from a place of fundamentally caring about each other. One of the places I see it happen most often is among black women. It’s in Tia Hall and her friends, Sisterhood of The Floating 20, it’s behind the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program and the Montgomery bus boycott. It’s behind the movement to end the money bail system and the movement for black lives. I talked about this particular way that black women have of being in community with philanthropic futurist, Trista Harris.
Trista Harris: There’s something special in general about black women and it has to do with getting things done. And so, if you want something done, have a black woman do it because it’s the ability not just to hustle and do the work, but it’s also to bring together the community that’s necessary for it to happen. And so I think the secret sauce for black women is about having a network of support and people that you can pull together at different times. And that social capital is what makes amazing things happen. So how do we connect with those people and deepen those relationships?
Trista Harris: I think for a lot of communities they’ve lost those networks and those relationships a long time ago and they’re really hungry for those again. So I think black women have held onto those things because we have to. It’s the only way to stay sane in this country and raise your family and do the things that you have to do, is you need to have people. I think for a lot of communities we got to the place where everybody feels like they’re on their own and you have 2000 Facebook friends. So that must mean that I have people but nobody take me to the hospital when I’m sick. So how do we deepen communities so that more people have what black woman have?
Mia Birdsong: This way of being is not exclusive to black women, but black women have been living and thriving in sub optimal conditions for centuries and have therefore innovated beautiful ways to live and be in community that America at large should learn from. As I think about where we go from here, there is of course a need for our civic engagement around economic justice and there are links on our website morethanenoughpodcast.com for you to find places to plug in. Anytime I start thinking small about what’s possible for me personally or what I think is possible when it comes to making change in the world. I remind myself how big my ancestors had to dream for me to be here. I know that back in the day there was some people who opposed slavery in theory but were like, “Slavery is too big to fail. The South will never go for ending slavery. How will we pay for it? What will all those free black people do? Let’s just make slavery better.” But abolitionists were like, “No, our freedom is non-negotiable. Slavery is wrong. It’s morally indefensible. It needs to be ended.” Period, full stop.
Mia Birdsong: Over the last two years, I’ve talked to wide ranging audiences about guaranteed income and one of the things that consistently gets fretted about is its boldness. People have said to me, “What will poor people do with all that money? The right will never go for it. How will we pay for it?” And I can’t help but think of the people who thought that ending slavery was too hard, too bold an idea. Too many of us have become convinced that the rules as written by fear, scarcity and avarice are the ones we must play by, but we don’t have to. We have to be willing to dream our most courageously when it comes to policy and systems change because we cut ourselves off from the best possible outcomes. If we start compromising our ideal before we begin, as many of my wisest mentors remind me, binaries are bullshit.
Mia Birdsong: We can be pragmatic and utopian at the same time. Our most beautiful, far reaching righteous ideal is what points our incremental strategic steps in the right direction. We didn’t create this podcast to explore the details of how to implement a guaranteed income. This podcast is about learning from the voices that have been excluded from our national discussions about economic injustice and inviting us all to think more deeply about what we all deserve.
Mia Birdsong: Ultimately, the conversations I had with the people you’ve heard from in this series made me less interested in whether or not guaranteed income becomes a policy and more interested in more of us believing in and fighting for everyone’s fundamental dignity and deservedness. Cornell West once said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” I’m inspired by a future in which our public policies and practices are expressions of love, and I’m excited to build a world in which each of us has our needs met, is cared for and love so deeply that we give freely to others because we know we have more than enough.
Mia Birdsong: More Than Enough was developed by Next River Productions, created and hosted by me, Mia Birdsong, audio engineering, and music by Nino Moschella, script development and production by Alison Cook. The content of this podcast was informed by the stories of hundreds of people across the country, only some of whom you heard from. Thank you to everyone who took their time to speak with me and share their story. Support for the production of More Than Enough was provided by a few generous folks and The Economic Security project, an organization advancing cash-based interventions in the United States and raining in corporate monopolies. More Than Enough is a project of The Nation magazine.