Yesterday, Thursday, March 11, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan, $1.9 trillion spending package aimed at shoring up the damage inflicted to the economy and family balance sheets by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the provisions is a third round of direct cash payments to households, as well as a significant expansion of the Child Tax Credit—increased from $2,000 per child under 16 to $3,000 for per child under 17 and $3,600 per child under 6—to be administered “periodically” to better align with real-time expenses parents incur. Researchers at Columbia University estimate that the CTC expansion alone has the potential to cut child poverty in half.
It is especially poignant that this legislative achievement has occurred during Women’s History Month. By providing recurring, unrestricted cash payments to households, the CTC expansion represents the closest approximation of “guaranteed income” so far in the United States. Though it was enacted as a temporary response to the acute hardship experienced by families during this economic crisis, it builds upon generations of leadership and activism among people for who the economy has never worked—especially Black women.
Then—just as now—Black women are doubly disadvantaged by gender and racial discrimination in the labor market and inadequate policies to fill the gap in what they make and what they need, and draw from these experiences to imagine a more just and equitable future. Foregrounding this history offers clear lessons for designing financial security policies that offer support and dignity to everyone.
The National Welfare Rights Organization
This strategy of “centering the margins’ animated the actions of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). In 1972, Johnnie Tillmon, chairperson of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), wrote in her essay “Welfare is a Women’s Issue” advocating for the NWRO’s Guaranteed Adequate Income (GAI) plan. “Maybe we poor welfare women will really liberate women in this country… Both because we have so few illusions and because our issues are so important to all women—the right to a living wage for women’s work, the right to life itself.”
Though the need for a GAI was drawn from the experiences of the thousands of predominately Black women NWRO members and emphasized the need to compensate the work of caregiving disproportionately carried by women, the universality of its design was an intentional feature to eliminate the sexism in welfare provision practices. “There would be no ’categories’—men, women, children, single, married, kids, no kids—just poor people who need aid. You’d get paid according to need and family size only, and that would be upped as the cost of living goes up,” Tillmon wrote.
Importantly, adequate income was just one of the pillars of the NWRO’s agenda. As NWRO activist Daisy Snipes expressed in a statement delivered in a hearing before the Maryland legislature on that state’s treatment of welfare recipients, “Welfare is a right and we have the right to adequate welfare. We have a right to [a] decent standard of living including enough money for adequate food, housing, and clothing for our families. We have a right to be treated with dignity. We have a right to opportunities for good jobs, training, and education. We have a right to fair hearings with legal help if we believe we have not been treated fairly.”
Claiming these rights, as well as the right to have a voice in the policy decisions that affected them, was a reaction to the pervasive practices within the public assistance system that treated them as the “other,” such as unannounced home inspections and police officers placed within the welfare office. As such, Dignity, Justice, and Democracy composed the other three pillars of the NWRO agenda. This framework clearly connects the material condition in need of change—adequate income—to the political conditions necessary to secure them, and introduces Dignity and Justice as key metrics for evaluating how any policy is performing based on the experiences of the people the policy is impacting.
The Magnolia Mother’s Trust
The NWRO framework remains strikingly relevant, and one that The Magnolia Mother’s Trust (MMT) in Jackson, MS models in the modern day. Launched in 2018 by the direct service organization Springboard to Opportunities under the leadership of Springboard CEO and Aspen Ascend Fellow Aisha Nyandoro, MMT is a direct response to the difficult labor market conditions and inadequate safety net performance that left the families they served experiencing deep financial hardship. In the Jackson area, for example, three of the top-five occupations in which Black women are overrepresented pay less than $15,000 a year, and in the occupation of home health aide where Black women comprise an overwhelming majority (88 percent of workers), the typical wage is only $8.00 an hour.
Despite the availability of work paying a sufficient wage, the state nonetheless takes full advantage of its flexibility to administer public benefits programs and tighten eligibility requirements. As a result, Mississippi provides among the most meager and least accessed assistance in the nation. The state has the highest poverty rate in the nation, and in 2019, 43 percent of its Black children were in families living below the poverty line, compared with 14 percent of white children. Yet, only 6 percent of families living in poverty participate in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and those who do receive a maximum benefit of $170 per month, a value that diminishes each year due to inflation.
Springboard responded to these dynamics by launching the Magnolia Mother’s Trust in December of 2018, the nation’s only guaranteed income project tailored to poor Black women. In April, MMT will embark upon its third year of providing $1,000 a month to its participants—no strings attached. Critically, the Magnolia Mother’s Trust was co-designed by women living in these housing communities. Indeed, through their “radically resident-driven” process, Springboard created a program that supports the participant’s financial needs while also building a shared sense of cohesion and community and affirmation of their own power. As such, the Magnolia Mother’s Trust provides a necessary model of directly engaging people who are impacted by policy in the decision making—and the collective value of following their lead.
Black Women Best
At this time in our history when an economic crisis has catalyzed a political reimagining of how financial security policy should be designed and delivered—to provide stability through this moment and beyond—there is significance in building on the insights from the NWRO and, in particular, on advocating the strategy of centering Black women in defining and leading transformation. Five years after “Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” the members of the Combahee River Collective, an organization of Black feminist scholars and activists, articulated this most clearly, saying, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
Indeed, this is a strategy that has gained new prominence in the wake of the COVID-19 health and economic crisis.
In September 2020, for example, the Roosevelt Institute published Black Women Best: The Framework We Need for An Equitable Economy, building out a term coined by report co-author Janelle Jones (recently appointed the chief economist at the Department of Labor). The report details a range of proposals–including establishing a guaranteed income, ensuring a federal jobs guarantee and living wage, enacting a single-payer health system, and increasing worker power through sectoral bargaining and extending labor protections–designed around the foundational principle of serving Black women as a means of achieving broader prosperity. Echoing the Combahee statement, the report states: “In the rejection of a return to ’normal,’ in which our economy and society were only working for the privileged, wealthy, and predominantly white few, America must demand a policy—and political—response to the COVID-19 pandemic that puts Black women first, and as a result, makes a stronger economy for everyone else.”
While the pending expansion of the Child Tax Credit is historic, it’s also temporary and will expire at the end of the year without further legislative action. For guaranteed income and other ideas grounded in human needs to gain political traction and to provide a safeguard against retrenchment, the interests and influence of people within our nation’s economic margins must be institutionalized within government itself.
In December 2020, the Financial Security Program partnered with Springboard to Opportunities to release a paper defining a set of practices applying this approach to the design and evaluation of financial security policy. To switch the default of how financial security policy is made to center the power and influence of the individuals and communities currently in our nation’s economic margins, the next step will require building a community of practice and collective action to grow this knowledge base, broaden our set of practices, and apply them at the direction of the people these actions are serving. We hope you will join us.
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Excited by the historic expansion of cash in the American Rescue Plan? Thank generations of leadership by Black women, including @aisha_nyandoro of @SpringboardToOp. Read more from @Rachel_E_Black of @AspenFSP