This op-ed by Dan Porterfield, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, was originally published in Forbes.
At age 30, with two kids and no college degree, my mother found a teaching job and enrolled in night school. She would go on to earn her both her master’s and a doctorate and become a renowned scholar of women in the American West.
My mother’s journey was made possible, in part, because of the support she received from her employers while raising her family. They paid her a good wage with health insurance and enough money for childcare. They showed flexibility so that she could care for my sister and me when we were sick. Looking back, I’m struck by the power of these good employers to help our whole family move into the economic mainstream.
Ascend at the Aspen Institute understands this power, too, which is why it’s helping employers build opportunity ecosystems for families. Led by executive director Anne Mosle, Ascend does this through its creation of a network of leaders spearheading innovative strategies that can break cycles of intergenerational poverty all around the country.
One such leader is Aisha Nyandoro, CEO of the nonprofit Springboard to Opportunities and an Ascend fellow. Springboard developed and launched an income-enhancement initiative in Jackson, Mississippi called Magnolia Mother’s Trust. The group provides $1,000 a month over a year to 20 families with low incomes that are headed by African American women and living in affordable housing. Families use this money in whichever ways best meets their financial needs. “There are no strings, no conditions,” Nyandoro said on a recent episode of the Aspen Insight podcast. “We trust our peeps.”
In addition to the funding, the families receive support from a network of mothers as a way of building community through shared experience. The program also provides individual coaching and counseling to remove barriers such as the scarcity ideology that some families adopt as a basic survival technique.
The results are promising. Each mother has opened a checking and savings account with a minimum of $500 saved. Some have gone back to school and secured higher-paying jobs. Most are paying off some predatory debts. They have been able to restore relationships now that the stress of making ends meet has been lifted. “The Magnolia Mother’s Trust is liberating capital and enhancing the agency, incomes, and prosperity of black mothers in Jackson,” Mosle says.
Springboard to Opportunities is changing the narrative around poverty and single motherhood—but it is hardly the only actor making a difference. The group is a part of the Aspen Family Prosperity Innovation Community, a collection of national, state, and local organizations working together on policies like paid family leave, affordable childcare, and universal basic income. Through collective action, this Community is making a bigger difference than any entity could alone, and with a new $7 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Ascend is now engaging employers around family-supportive strategies that enable economic mobility.
Two overarching themes in this work stand out:
First, remember that all work should be infused with dignity. Parents are not looking to work simply to make ends meet; they want to have thriving families. This means that the compensation we offer should include access to affordable health care, high-quality child care, and the opportunities for further learning. It means being able to take paid time off to care for an ailing loved one. And it means having the ability to use these benefits without shame or fear of retribution.
And second, when developing policies and programs to support the families in your workplace, make sure parents are valued as full partners in all conversations. Parents are by nature problem-solvers. When it comes to family finances or time management, most working parents are flexible, adaptable, and think on their feet. They know what they need to raise healthy, resilient children.
As Ebony Beals, a Springboard parent said, “I don’t want to be just a voice. I want to be part of the action.” She wants a seat at the table, and she has tons to offer. When parents help set the agenda for a company, we often end up with more successful and sustainable business environments.
That’s the right thing to do and the smart thing to do—for families, for businesses, and for society. It certainly worked in my case.