Obama praised the idea. Reporter Annie Lowrey and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes recently published books about it. The city of Chicago is exploring it. And the town of Stockton, California, has begun a pilot project experimenting with it. But Mississippi is arguably one of the last places you’d expect to find an effort to provide people in poverty with a guaranteed basic income. Yet, in December, 16 mothers in public housing in Jackson will begin to receive $1,000 per month for a year, no strings attached.
The new guaranteed-income initiative, the Magnolia Mothers Trust, targets an African-American community with an average annual income of $11,300. The project emerged out of Jackson native Aisha Nyandoro’s work running Springboard to Opportunities, a nonprofit serving residents in federally subsidized affordable-housing communities in Mississippi, Alabama, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Frustrated with the stubbornness of intergenerational poverty in these housing complexes, Nyandoro turned to the families living there to gather information about their experiences and needs.
The women Nyandoro spoke with consistently articulated that inadequate access to cash was a serious impediment. Without cash, “There is no breathing room. There is a constant idea that at any moment something could go wrong and knock you back—not just for that moment, but for six months or a year,” said Nyandoro. That led her and her colleagues to ask a simple question: “What if the mothers had the resources they need to breathe and think about the future and plan?” Nyandoro secured funding for the pilot from individual donors as well as the Economic Security Project, which supports initiatives that explore access to unconditional cash. In November, there will be a lottery to select the participants.
One of Nyandoro’s hypotheses is that a guaranteed, unconditional income will serve like a release valve to the constant pressures of poverty, freeing bandwidth women can use to strengthen the prospects for both their families and their communities—to work towards their own dreams and goals, and to engage and lead in their communities. Society, Nyandoro said, greatly underestimates the strengths, skills, and leadership qualities of these women.
“I see on a daily basis how they work to keep their dignity in a system and country where they are not being dignified,” said Nyandoro. “To advocate for their kids in failing school systems…for themselves in a failing economic workforce system. And somehow they still manage to show up with humor and grace and joy.”
The idea of giving poor women cash without telling them how to use it is a direct refutation of the punitive approach to antipoverty policy that has been ascendant in America since the Reagan years. As it happens, Mississippi was ground zero for that kind of approach: Before President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, which caused the number of poor families receiving cash assistance in the United States to plummet, there was a pilot program in Mississippi that was a harbinger of things to come.