Lationna Halbert’s life used to revolve around the series of sacrifices, big and small, she made to ensure her son’s wellbeing. She is a single mom, and for years her dreams didn’t extend much past putting food on the table and paying the water bill. Any ambitions she might’ve had for herself were firmly set aside.
Then, at the beginning of the pandemic, Halbert found herself unemployed as an outbreak of black mold crept through her apartment in Jackson, Mississippi. Staying afloat had become nearly impossible, and she needed cash—fast, and without onerous restrictions attached.
That was when her previous landlord told her about Magnolia Mother’s Trust. “She knew I needed help badly,” Halbert, now a secretary at the local public school, told Jezebel. “I was sinking.” The more she learned about the Magnolia Mother’s Trust program, the more it sounded perfect for her: “A whole bunch of mothers getting together, trying to help each other—I wanted to be a part of that community.”
Last April, Halbert joined the third cohort of the program, which provides $1,000 per month without any strings to “extremely low-income” Black mothers in Jackson who are the breadwinners of their households and live in affordable housing. The first cohort of the program, run by the nonprofit Springboard to Opportunities, included just 20 women and wrapped up in the last months of 2019. The second, which ran through the first year of the pandemic, included 110 women. The third and current cohort began last April, and is set to wrap this spring. Halbert is one of its 100 participating Black mothers.
With those thousand extra dollars coming her way every month, Halbert was able to get her young son “more than I ever could” for Christmas last year—nothing “big” or “fancy,” just toys and treats she hadn’t been able to give him before. She was also able to start cosmetology classes, laying the groundwork to launch her own hair and beauty business.
“Suddenly, I didn’t have to struggle paycheck-to-paycheck anymore,” she said. “This program has just driven and made possible all these things I’ve always wanted to do with my life—how I want to grow and experience more things.”
Halbert’s experience aligns with Springboard to Opportunities’ 2020 findings about just how dramatically $1,000 per month can transform the lives of low-income moms. Over the course of the roughly year-long program, the percentage of mothers who were able to “pay all their bills on time” increased from 27 percent to 83 percent. The percentage of mothers who had money saved for emergencies increased from 40 percent to 88 percent, and those who had enough money for food increased from 64 percent to 81 percent. The program also reported a substantial increase in the number of mothers who were able to get health insurance coverage, put enough gas in their car, and buy essentials for their children.
As Magnolia Mother’s Trust wraps its third cohort, Springboard to Opportunities says it is beyond “proving” the effectiveness of guaranteed income to break cycles of poverty—all of its cohorts have irrefutably demonstrated this. It’s now “building a movement” to advocate for guaranteed income in public policy while centering the voices of Black women. And right now, two years into a pandemic that’s fundamentally shifted our collective imagination about what’s possible in our economic system, there’s never been such appetite for guaranteed income policies.
Guaranteed income isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound—we’re already seeing policies offering it in some form or another. Families across the country received three rounds of economic stimulus checks meant to offset lost wages amid covid lockdowns. In 2019, Stockton, California, launched a first-in-the-nation program that offered some residents $500 a month, no strings attached, for two years. Last year even saw Congress pass a Child Tax Credit that offered up to $300 per child to most households across the country. Since it expired in January, child poverty rates have skyrocketed by 41 percent; in the weeks following its expiration, new research showed direct cash payments to low-income families can have a significant, positive impact on babies’ brain development.
Low-income mothers—particularly low-income Black mothers—and their children are boxed in from the beginning. In Mississippi, where Magnolia Mother’s Trust operates, Republican governor Phil Bryant has oft claimed the state is “the safest place for an unborn child in America.” In fact, it has the highest infant mortality rate in the nation, and a higher than average maternal mortality rate. Maternal mortality rates for Black women in Mississippi are nearly three times as high as those of white women, NBC reported. The prospect of starting and providing for a family is made all the more bleak by Mississippi’s poverty rate, which is higher than any other state’s.
Mothers like Halbert and others who have participated in the Magnolia Mother’s Trust program believe guaranteed incomes programs could not only save their lives and their children’s, but put them on a path to actually imagine joyful futures.
Halbert’s landlord and others who ran the low-income apartment building in which she and her son lived “did not care whatsoever” about the black mold situation. She cried, begged, and sought support online, but no one took any action. “I was on my own,” she said.
It wasn’t until she started receiving payments from Springboard that she was able to save enough money to move to a better apartment, and still remain in her community, which had been one of her top concerns. Halbert can now also afford child care for her son, which she says costs $300 per month at a minimum, so she can go to her job and attend her cosmetology classes. And she is able to take care of herself in ways she simply couldn’t before, whether that’s sometimes getting her hair and nails done, or, Halbert says, “allowing myself to dream.”
Capitalism and the free market are often celebrated by conservative and liberal politicians alike, who idealize it as the ultimate system to breed innovation. But few seem to consider the inequities, barriers, and cruelties often rooted in race, class, and gender that determine who has the time and ability to have dreams, to ideate and innovate.
Tia, a mother from a previous Magnolia Mother’s Trust cohort, recounted in Ms. magazine being able to see her father for the first time in 20 years, and introduce her children to their grandfather for the first time, with the help of the program. Tia’s father didn’t live out-of-country; he was in Pennsylvania, but for nearly two decades, she didn’t have enough disposable income to make the trip.
Another mother from a previous cohort, Danel, grew up in the foster system and wrote in Ms. that “things get tough” caring for her two kids while she pursues an advanced teaching degree. She said she aspires to open a daycare center in Jackson, and the monthly payments would help her pay off her student loans and move into a house. A mother named Roneisha shared how the program helped with her depression and anxiety, not just through its cash payments, but the support system, check-ins, and affirmations it provides. There is life-changing potential in guaranteed income for people who can use it to live fuller, freer, and frankly happier lives.
Aisha Nyandoro, CEO of Springboard to Opportunities, tells Jezebel the idea for the Magnolia Mother’s Trust program emerged when she realized that through “every conversation we had with low-income families, almost every challenge could be addressed if a family simply had more financial resources.”
Poverty and wealth inequality in the U.S. are vastly skewed by race and gender—year after year, women are more likely than men to live in poverty. Black women are more than twice as likely as white women. Racism and sexism are inseparable from economic injustice in America, Nyandoro says, and this is part of why people who experience poverty are so often blamed for their own suffering, and pushback and misconceptions about social safety net programs and guaranteed income are so prevalent. You’ll recall that one of the reasons Senator Joe Manchin reportedly opposed renewing the Child Tax Credit was his belief that low-income parents would use it to buy drugs.
Manchin is hardly the only member of Congress who holds conservative values, while simultaneously shaping economic policy around racist, sexist, and classist assumptions that harm families of color. For all the fearmongering about America’s supposedly declining birth rates, the U.S. is a uniquely terrible place to start a family, especially for low-income women of color, and Black and brown women in particular. Proposed policies to marginally improve their lives and their children’s lives are routinely defeated by ostensibly “pro-life” lawmakers, like a Republican Congress member who literally asked Congress why male taxpayers should have to pay for prenatal health care in a 2017 debate about the Affordable Care Act. Male though he may be, you’ll note he’s alive today because someone once birthed him.
In the U.S., the challenges of parenting, especially for single mothers of color, extend beyond lacking paid family and maternity leave. Parents are left to fend for themselves amid high costs of child care, primary education, health care, housing, food, and college. Without the aid of generational wealth or livable wages amid almost unprecedented inflation rates, affording even the most basic resources needed to parent has become an increasingly herculean task for low-income parents.
“We don’t understand how poverty works within this country, where so many people believe poverty is a behavioral choice, a moral failing,” Nyandoro said. “We blame individuals for being poor, without really looking at how the system is intentionally designed to make it virtually impossible to exit poverty within this country—especially if you are of a certain gender, a certain race, a certain class of demographic.”
Halbert passionately echoed this sentiment. “Deep down, nobody really knows what another person needs,” she said. “Everybody’s life is affected in different ways—you never know why people are in poverty, why they might need money.”
Even before covid, visibility around guaranteed income received a boost from venture capitalist Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign. Yang centered what he called a “freedom dividend” in his platform, but progressive critics pointed out how his plan failed to enact meaningful wealth redistribution, relying on an increased value-added tax (similar to a sales tax) rather than a wealth tax, all while being touted as a substitute for publicly funded health care and education. The proposal was ultimately rooted in the wealth inequality it purported to address. Yang’s freedom dividend mirrors similar pitches couched in libertarian rhetoric from billionaire technocrats like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, all transparently invested in prioritizing their own class interests and sticking a band-aid of sorts on capitalism.
Despite these noted wolves in sheep’s clothing, the Magnolia Mother’s Trust program shows guaranteed income can still be one of the simplest and most transformative ways to address poverty in the nation. But any public policy that offers guaranteed income should center racial justice and the voices of low-income Black mothers, as Springboard to Opportunities does, rather than billionaire interests. Black mothers, unlike wealthy men, know where that money can do the most good.
At the end of a Magnolia Mother’s Trust cohort, Nyandoro says mothers stay in the community and remain in contact with the Springboard team. Many are able to build savings, afford better housing, or complete higher education and advanced degrees. They have opportunities to experience greater joy without being constrained by endless struggles to make ends meet.
When Halbert first joined Magnolia Mother’s Trust, she told Jezebel she was excited to be one of many moms like her, helping each other, learning each other’s stories, and becoming part of something bigger than themselves. “I needed that help, from [Springboard], from the other mothers,” she said. “Now, I want to and am able to be someone who helps others.”