If you’ve never been poor, you don’t know how soul-crushingly hard it is to always be struggling to make ends meet. The grinding challenge of not knowing how you are gonna pay for this bill or that fee takes a real toll.
But on top of that, our current poverty alleviation programs—things like food stamps, welfare payments, disability assistance—they all come with some real strings attached. We make people experiencing poverty jump through more hoops to get this measly assistance than people who haven’t experienced poverty can even fathom. And the dirty secret of all that busywork we set up for people struggling to make ends meet? Our poverty alleviation programs just aren’t working in the way they should.
A big part of why they don’t work is because the people who create and run programs and services don’t trust poor people. Instead of trust, they devise hurdles people must navigate to prove they are worthy of support.
The truth is that self-determination—our ability and desire to make choices about what our lives look like—is restricted when it comes to poor people—and this is to our collective detriment. Whether a person might become a powerful agent for social change or seek out their dreams as an artist, it does no one any good when we hold people back by not providing more equitable access to resources. Thankfully, there’s a better way, and it begins with trusting poor people to make the best decisions about how to shape their own lives.
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.
Interviewee: My daughter, she wants to be a cheerleader at her school and then they put her on the cheerleading team. They didn’t tell me, so now I don’t know what it’s going to cost. I don’t know where that extra money is going to come from, but that makes her happy and that’s something I’m glad that she found something she is going to enjoy doing at schools.
Mia Birdsong: This mom from Jackson, Mississippi, who is both proud of and panicky about her daughter’s accomplishment is sharing a sentiment that I heard in so many of the conversations I had across the country. The grinding challenge of not knowing how you’re going to pay for this bill or that uniform and the resignation that you got to do what you got to do to make it work. The level of juggling and navigation and making a way out of no way that poor people are doing is some wizard level shit. People are, as always, working hard, tolerating the intolerable and hoping for a better future despite ample evidence to the contrary. But what would happen if people’s basic needs were taken care of? What if it wasn’t such an unending grind. I’m Mia Birdsong and this is episode two of More than Enough.
Interviewee: And believe it or not, I had three jobs at one time. I was working at hotels and working at a fast food and I started with my first job at Wendy’s. I was making $5.25 and at the hotel, it was $5.50 cleaning rooms, so it was the same. Nobody’s trying to pay you enough money to live where you can live comfortably, get all your bills paid and everything else.
Interviewee: I’ve been working since I was 16 years old and I’m 60 so I know what it means to work.
Interviewee: I don’t want to go stand in the food pantry line no more because that’s just not something that I want to experience anymore.
Interviewee: Because I live day by day by checks.
Interviewee: It’s kind of hard because we don’t have enough money stretched between rent and meals to help them have recreational. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Interviewee: Am I going to hold these off to get these done?
Interviewee: My babysitter, she actually takes care of the children more than I do. So basically my babysitter’s raising my niece and nephew and my three kids, because I’m barely home. I can actually spend more time with my family, my children, my husband. You know, maybe he won’t have to work in the field six days a week, but at the moment I’m on transitional food stamps, which is going to be shut off soon. When that stops, you know, how am I going to feed all these children?
Mia Birdsong: What you just heard was part of a tour I did traveling across the country talking about guaranteed income with folks who are struggling to make ends meet. Each of those voices connects back to hours of conversation that I had in Durham, North Carolina, Jackson, Mississippi and up and down California. Each one of them highlighting the wisdom and perspectives of people who are all too often left out of economic policy discussions. The last voice was a mother from Stockton, California. She is doing all of the things we tell people they need to do to get ahead. She’s working over time. She’s making plans. She’s pitching in to take care of extended family, but she’s about to lose her apartment. It’s clearly almost impossible for her to sustain much less move forward. Her story exemplifies just how perverse it is that people are told to work harder and sacrifice more and then they get shit for not spending more time with their families or taking perfect care of their health.
When I hear her story, it could not be clearer to me that our existing approaches to alleviate poverty are not working the way they should and so I have to ask why don’t we make it easier? What’s keeping us from making sure that all of us have our basic needs met? My friend Aisha Nyandoro, who works in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi is asking a lot of the same questions. Like me, she is wondering how instead of punishing people we might actually create policies and programs that genuinely support them. She’s wondering what might happen if we gave people more space for self-determination. Aisha partners with black moms who live in public housing. She co-designed and is now piloting a guaranteed income project with these women. Here she is talking about how she came to this work.
Aisha Nyandoro: All of my work has really been to work poverty alleviation and I’ve been going at a policy systematic program development, implementation approach to that work. So when I’ve realized that, shit, none of this is working, to be honest, not having the impact that I know that families need and I’m constantly seeing families that look like me, brown families, black families, family narratives. It’s very similar to my family narrative. Constantly see them dying on the vine and having some social responsibility for that and you really feel in pain by that reality. So a couple of years ago I was really struggling. I’m like, you know, people just need money. Just point blank period. You just need to get folks cash and let them figure out what to do with it. Well, lo and behold, in my research, I came to the conclusion nobody wants to be give poor people cash. Who knew? It’s bananas to me but it goes back to that narrative and that us versus them mentality that we set up where we don’t trust low income families and we have put ourselves on this pedestal. And thinking about giving individuals cash is really how I found out about universal basic income and a guaranteed income and I was like, “That would be the answer to all of the problems that the families that I work with have.”
Mia Birdsong: So I want to emphasize what Aisha is saying because I’ve seen it repeatedly and it gets ignored or excused. Many of the social and economic policies we put in place to help people who are struggling to make ends meet do not help the way they should. Often they just create additional challenges. A big part of why they don’t work is because the people who create and run programs and services don’t trust poor people. Instead of trust, they devise hurdles people must navigate to prove they’re worthy of support. For example, in some States, in order to get a childcare voucher, you must be working or in school, but processing vouchers can take months and you can’t go to work or go to school without childcare. Another example is Snap, commonly known as food stamps. There are so many restrictions on what you can and can’t buy, like no hot food or vitamins or low fat peanut butter and some places the list of things changes monthly.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we get rid of the social safety net system, but we should design it in a way that trusts the people who use it. Right now, these rules aren’t set up to support the way people live their actual lives. If you can’t go to work or get your family hot food after you’ve come home at the end of a long day, your life just becomes difficult in a different way instead of becoming easier. Aisha trusts the experience and wisdom of the women she works with. Her approach respects self-determination. This orientation is part of her family’s values. That sense of history in place is deeply embedded in the project. Even in its name, the Magnolia Mother’s Trust.
Aisha Nyandoro: When I think about Magnolia, it goes back to my grandmother and my grandmother was a civil rights agent, social justice warrior here in Mississippi and in the Southeast region. When she first moved into our family home, when we moved from the Delta, moved to Jackson, she planted a Magnolia tree in our front yard, but to give our family roots to make sure that we were now planted within our community.
Mia Birdsong: Guaranteed income is a good idea because it works. There’s 30 years of research from previous pilots to analysis of existing programs that tells us this and the more we talk about it, the more we have to look closely at our economy’s rigged systems and ask ourselves, why do we accept this? In the broadest of strokes, it is abundantly clear that we are not winning the war on poverty and we are not winning the war on poverty mostly because we have made poor people the target of that war. Aisha shows us that we can be much smarter and way more generous.
Aisha Nyandoro: This project is really proposing to give low income women, I’m not talking about working class and middle class, I am talking about folks who are extremely low income and that means making less than $12,000 annually. Giving them $1,000 a month to do whatever it is that they want, knowing that they know better than anyone what they need for themselves and their family. So whether or not they want to use that money to go back to school or use that money to get employment. Use that money to get a car so they can actually get to their employment. Whether or not they want to use that money to support their kids, whatever it is that they want with that. Give them ability to have that cash to do that?
But I’m also saying that another piece of that is just not the cash. I believe that the cash is important because it frees up your bandwidth. If you don’t have to constantly think about or worrying about an emergency, think about the brilliance that will manifest. My big hypothesis within all of this. You know what leadership innovation can manifest without the constant need for survival? Will these women once again be able to show up within their communities and be the community change agents, get involved with their local school board, get reengaged within politics? I believe that will happen beyond just the economic aspects. I believe there are all these other social norms and community changes that will occur as well.
Mia Birdsong: Aisha knows that the women she works with deserves so much more. She knows that when you trust people to make good decisions, it’s good for them and their whole community.
Aisha Nyandoro: These women are warriors and you should actually trust mothers. We have so many examples of strong black women leading the way in history that I truly believe that if we just began to support women with what it is that they need we can begin to cause a systematic change. We can make it a reality.
Mia Birdsong: In addition to the critical truth of black women’s excellence. Part of what Aisha points toward is that self-determination, our ability and desire to make choices about what our lives look like is restricted when it comes to poor people, and this is to our collective detriment. Whether a person might become a powerful agent for social change or seek out their dreams as an artist, it does no one any good when we hold people back by not providing more equitable access to resources. Here’s another person that I spoke with in Stockton, California whose direct experience with these economic hurdles is holding them back from their dreams.
Interviewee: From my life, creating a process where eviction doesn’t affect you getting a place to live because that’s been my burden. Even though my eviction has paid off, there’s no one willing to, any property management that’s willing to work with me even though it paid off six years ago. My life includes my family, so my children making sure that I have enough money so they can go to college and it increases every semester.
Interviewee: I’m a writer. I would love to be able to take my children to other countries to learn the culture, but I would love to write about that experience getting to know other people, but also I would live my life as a writer just to talk about people, tell people story about struggle because my lifelong dream is to be a ghost writer for people and their story. We have resources, but we have not enough resources in our community when it comes to housing or food, shelter. It’s such a disgrace that we live in such a surplus world.
Mia Birdsong: Her story about how the eviction she has on her record stands in the way of her dreams, even though she paid it off six years ago, made me so angry. It also made me realize how much my own thinking has changed when it comes to people having what they need. The reaction I had in college that guaranteed income was ridiculous came from this deep American cultural belief that people must prove they’re worthy of having their most basic needs met. And now several decades later part of what I like most about guaranteed income is it forces us to wrestle with our beliefs about what we deserve. If you believe as I do that everyone deserves the things we need to live than we should expect our government and leaders to deliver on that. Guaranteed income’s underlying ideology of self-determination provides us with a starting place to fix a lot of our other systems.
Right now we basically have two separate systems, one for poor people and one for everyone else. For example, when I bought my home in 2010 I just bought it. I got a life insurance payment when my dad died earlier that year, which I used for a down payment. Because I had that money, the system worked well for me like I deserved a house. Mortgage approved, keys exchanged, the end, no questions about my facility with money. Access to money meant I was left alone to do what I wanted.
On top of that, I qualified for a state run first time home buyers program that gave me $10,000 no strings attached. Then I think about a family that I worked with years ago. They too wanted to access first time home buyers program. This one was city run and specifically for low income families, but in order to just find out if you even qualified, you had to go through 30 something hours of classes and all the adults in the household had to attend. This family spent months completing the classes, hauling themselves around town on the bus and navigating their work schedules and making sure someone else was home to take care of their kids.
So they finally finish all the classes and they have an appointment with a program counselor to determine their eligibility. In this 10-minute meeting, they were told they didn’t qualify. After all of that effort, they didn’t even qualify. Can you imagine if the bank made you go through 30 hours of classes before they’d tell you if you qualified for a mortgage? This family worked way harder than I did to realize their dream of home ownership, but I had cash so I got a house.
As I’ve said before, and as Aisha made so clear part of what doesn’t work about our approach to solving economic inequality is that we’ve decided poor people are the problem. Across this vast network of policies and programs like Snap and housing assistance we’ve constructed systems that require people to repeatedly justify their requests for support. We pretend that the rules and requirements are set up to prevent fraud or somehow get people to prove that they’re responsible, but it’s really just tap dancing and hoop jumping.
So many of the folks I talked with are working so hard and struggling so much to meet needs that none of us should ever have to worry about. Certainly not in this wealthy nation. We can only do better when we recognize that the people who are struggling are not the problem. We need to make it easier.
One of the things I most appreciate about guaranteed income is it starts from a place of trusting people to know what will make their lives easier and opens up space for self-determination with one of the most necessary tools in American life. Cash. What would it be like if you just got the money you needed? No questions asked. What if we trusted people a little bit more?
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 in 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.