A New Basic Income Pilot in Mississippi, feat. Aisha Nyandoro

Recently, we got a very exciting announcement from Springboard To Opportunities and the Economic Security Project: the two groups are collaborating to create the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. This program will provide an unconditional basic income to a small group of low-income African American mothers. Owen spoke to Aisha Nyandoro, who works with low-income women in Mississippi and will be leading the program.

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Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. We had some big news come out recently in the basic income space. There’s a new pilot that’s being launched right now in the United States. This one is called the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. It’s going to provide $1,000 per month with no conditions to 15 low-income families headed by African-American women based in Jackson, Mississippi. They’ll be receiving those payments over the course of one year. The pilot’s being managed by Springboard To Opportunities, which is a direct service organization that’s also based in Mississippi.

Owen: To give us the lowdown on what this program is, how it got started, and what might come of it, I spoke with Aisha Nyandoro. She is the head of Springboard To Opportunities and is leading this project.

Jim: Here is Owen’s interview with Aisha.

Owen: Aisha, thank you for joining us on the podcast.

Aisha: Thank you so much for having me, Owen. I appreciate it.

Owen: To start, can you just tell us about Springboard To Opportunities? What its mission is and how it goes about achieving that?

Aisha: Yes. Thank you. Springboard To Opportunities is a non-profit based in Mississippi, but we do work in several states throughout the country. We are a resident service provider. We provide programs and services for individuals who live in federally subsidized affordable housing to help them achieve their dreams in life, school, and work. We take a holistic approach to service delivery. That’s anything from after-school programs, to workforce training, and job placement.

We really do pride ourselves on being radically resident-driven – that’s our tag – on being radically resident-driven and really listening to the families with whom we have a pleasure of serving and making sure that we are being responsive to the needs that they tell us that they have for their families.

Owen: That’s excellent. Very recently, Springboard To Opportunities made a very exciting announcement about the creation of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. Could you tell us what that is?

Aisha: Owen, you have very few opportunities in life, I feel, to do something that you think is bold and big and take a risk where you really have a chance to just put everything you believe out there on the line. That’s what the Magnolia Mother’s Trust is for us. Just to give you a little backstory about how this came to be, for the last couple of years, I’ve really been torn with the reality that the work that we’re doing at Springboard, even though it’s awesome and amazing, it really was not helping us move the needle on poverty.

We really began to do some work in examining the policies and various things that are in place as it relates to our families and realized there was a disconnect between what they actually needed and the reality of what they were receiving. Over time and time again in conversations with our families, what it was that we kept learning is that they really just needed more access to cash. That there were very few opportunities for them to get cash without there being strings attached and for them to get cash that they could use for just whatever it was that they needed for their families. Not a voucher, not a subsidy, but cold hard cash.

About a year or so ago, I really started taking that idea and I’m like, “Okay. If we could give them cash, what would that look like?” That is from which the Magnolia Mother’s Trust was birthed. With that idea that if you just give individuals cash, for us primarily it will be women. That’s why it’s “Mother’s” because the majority of the individuals that we work with in our adult population are African-American women and their children. Really just saying what would it look like if we gave women money with no strings attached and really for us just focusing on that African-American population because that’s the majority of the individuals that we work with.

What innovations could come to light if individuals were not constantly kept in a sea of trying to just survive? If individuals really had what it is that they need to thrive, what could happen within these communities? What the Magnolia Mother’s Trust is going to do is going to give $1,000 per mother for 12 months to 15 individuals that live in federally subsidized affordable housing. For our population, that is a game-changer, because on average, individuals that we work with make less than the $11,000 annually. We’re talking about doubling someone’s income.

Owen: It sounds like– you probably have specific questions about what’s going to happen, but it also seems like part of the excitement is that it’s open-ended. You don’t entirely know what it’s going to mean.

Aisha: We have no idea what’s going to happen. That’s why it’s so exciting and also so scary. Because with this particular population, we have a lot of questions that we’re trying to answer simultaneously. We have the very basic questions of, what will they do with the money? What will the outcomes look like? Will this help individuals begin to free up their bandwidth and be more engaged in our local community and also engage within their own individual lives?

We have those very individual level questions at the very basic aspects of what we plan on evaluating. We also have some larger research questions as it relates to policy, really understanding what the infusion of cash would do for this population of individuals because, like I said, we’re dealing with individuals who are extremely low income, who live in a federally subsidized affordable housing.

They have vouchers. They have housing vouchers, they have SNAP, they have childcare vouchers in some instances. Really beginning to explore what cash does within those systems. That’s problematic because our social service system should not be set up so we’re so punitive where a very small influx of cash can really disrupt your lifestyle as you move towards economic self-sufficiency.

We have those questions as well, but then also on another aspect of it, we have questions as it looks, how will this redefine or define work? What individuals have an opportunity to look for jobs that are more fulfilling and look for opportunities that are more fulfilling rather than just feeling that they have to take a minimum wage job because they have that necessity to work? Really allowing folks to have more freedom and dignity to really look for opportunities that help satisfy their soul.

We have a lot of questions that we’ll be exploring over the course of the year with various partners. For us and for me, it’s really exciting that we have partners who are willing to go with us in uncharted waters and really explore what this means. That’s really exciting to have that level of trust with individuals that we partner with to do this work.

Owen: That uncertainty is why so many people are wary around the idea of basic income, that if you give people a housing voucher, you know what that’s going to be spent on. Whereas if you just give people money, then people’s imaginations can run wild, and that’s scary to the people who are maybe on the other end of that money.

Aisha: But why should it be? Why can’t we trust individuals to know what it is that they need for themselves and trust that if given the opportunity, they will do that? This idea of it being a scary notion, I get it, but in the very basics of it all, I really don’t understand what the rationale is in that fear.

These individuals that we work with, I can only ever speak for my population, the individuals that I work with are hardworking folks who are just trying to make it and who, unfortunately, they are constantly having to climb up a mountain just to live and exist. They know what it is that they need. I do not for one moment think that anyone is want to take this money irresponsibly with it.

If they do go get their nails done, their hair down, or whatever, to me, that’s a form of self-care, and that’s doing what you need to take care of yourself in that particular point in time.

Owen: Sure. It’s okay if people want to do that. Whenever anyone says, “Well people are just going to spend it on drugs and alcohol,” what I would like to say is, well, you’ve got some expendable income. Do you spend it on drugs and alcohol?”

Aisha: [laughs]

Owen: You’re working with African-American women. This is a small enough trial or experiment that you can be selective about– it’s not a randomized control exactly. You can take this separately or together: why African-Americans, and why women?

Aisha: Yes, a couple of reasons. For us, the African-American women aspect just really is a large part of the population that we already work with. The majority of the individuals within the communities that we serve, that’s our demography. That’s a very basic “why that population?”, but then also, for me, a much richer answer to why that population is one of the other pieces that I will love to see from this work is that we begin to change the narrative around women and social services within this country and really beginning to dispel that myth of the Welfare Queen. A lot of times when we talk about that nasty myth and that nasty ideology, it’s African-American women that we’re talking about.

For me, this really does provide an opportunity to really begin to rewrite how African-American women are viewed within this country and African-American women who live within poverty are viewed within this country who are really just trying to make it and who are trying to put in place the supports that they need for themselves and their families to actualize their dreams. That’s the first thing about African-American.

Then the other part is why mothers. Once again, it goes back to the demography of the population that we primarily work with. The majority of the individuals that we serve at Springboard are women, are mothers, and they are mothers between the ages of 25 and 44 with multiple kids who, once again, are trying to figure out how to survive and thrive, and how to raise their kids and how to keep themselves safe. They’re also at the same time while they’re trying to survive, they’re also dreaming about a greater future for themselves and a greater future for their families, and are really working tirelessly to try to make that dream come into fruition.

Owen: I’ve had a lot of conversations about race and poverty in our social benefits system. Some people say, let’s just talk about poverty, the color of your skin shouldn’t matter. Other people say, no these two things are inherently intertwined and you can’t ignore that. You’re getting into that in your last answer, but how do you approach that question?

Aisha: For me, it’s obvious. If folks have that idea of, why can’t we just talk about poverty without race? To me, that’s a whole lot of privilege rather than an answer. Think that you can have one without the other. Unfortunately, the two within this country are interwoven. We cannot have a conversation about poverty without talking about the systems that have systematically kept an entire population of people impoverished within this country. The two go hand in hand.

The systems and the policies that we have in place were designed with the understanding that we have serious issues with race. As that being the reality, since we have these serious issues with race that garner our social service systems, poverty and race go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. To me, it’s an asinine concept. If it makes you uncomfortable to talk about race in your conversations about poverty, you may need to do a little more homework in understanding.

Owen: Maybe along those lines, what appeals to you about basic income?

Aisha: So much appeals to me about basic income. To me, the most appealing aspect of basic income is the dignity that it would allow our families to have, not having to show up at an office and do paperwork to make it seem that you are trying to make yourself seem worthy for this hand out that’s being blessed upon you from this higher up. The ability to restore dignity to our families, that’s really exciting to me. This aspect that individuals will know when exactly is coming and what exactly it will be. That’s exciting because just the consistency of it is really exciting because so many of our individuals that we work with, the jobs that they have are hourly based jobs. With that, it’s not consistent from week to week or month to month. The inability to plan when you don’t know what your check will look like from week to week is really hard.

Just really allowing this consistency for our families, that’s really exciting to me. Then the other piece is, probably the most exciting of all of this, is really giving the breathing room that our families need to dream and to really think about possibilities, because, unfortunately, time and time again, what we are hearing and learning from our families is that their light is beginning to be diminished just a little bit because of the fact their life is so hard.

It’s really hard for me to envision a world where I’m not allowed the freedom to dream and where I don’t actually believe that my dreams could actually come true. Just allowing for the small moment in time for our families to begin to have the ability to dream again and to really put some steps into place to move towards those dreams.

Owen: Speaking of things that are maybe hard to imagine if you’re not living them, could you say a little bit about what it’s like to be on all these social benefit programs where you have to go in. How much time does that take, and how much of a burden is it on someone to continually re-up on these programs?

Aisha: It takes a lot of time. You could spend an entire day at your Department of Human Services office trying to get your SNAP benefits reinstated. It takes a lot of time as it relates to just this actual physical time of it all. Also there’s a lot of mental acrobats and gymnastics that’s required as well because you’re always trying to make sure that you are staying within whatever guidelines that exist for that particular service that it is that you’re receiving.

That’s all exhausting and time consuming, and you have to think about in a lot of instances are these individuals who may have to go to the Department of Human Services to get their benefits or something reinstated or to make sure that their benefits continue to be put in place. That is the time where you will have, in some instances, you have to take off work. If you were working that day, and we’re talking about folks who have hourly jobs, that’s a day where you may not get those wages. It’s a lot that just goes into all of that.

For us, what we have heard, and I keep saying we’ve heard because so much of what it is that we do is in conversations with our residents, with our families. We don’t do anything without their input. In a lot of times, so much of what we’ve heard from our families is really just the lack of dignity included with those situations of having to go to the Department of Human Services and try to help your caseworker empathize with what it is that you’re experiencing. All of those things are pieces where a little piece of your dignity is taken away.

Owen: Well, those are the questions I had for you. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Aisha: Yes. We’re just really excited about the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. We’re excited that this innovation is coming out of Mississippi, that in a lot of times when you hear about Mississippi, it may not always be something positive regarding the state. We’re excited to be within this state piloting this innovation with extremely low-income African-American mothers. We’re excited about being a part of the guaranteed income community and having an opportunity to learn alongside all of the other amazing partners who are taking the bold risk and big leaps of faith to pilot guaranteed income projects around this country.

Jim: That was Owen talking to Aisha Nyandoro of Springboard To Opportunities.

Owen: I love how they’re really embracing the uncertainty of cash in this program and how she is so excited by the fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen to these women, these families. There’s good reasons to be excited because we have really ample evidence of just how effective cash is and how people, by and large, are quite responsible with it when they are given cash.

Jim: Well, and also how completely ineffective so much of the programs in Mississippi are. I thought– the thing here that I found most inspiring is that the rationale behind this is entirely based on Aisha’s firsthand experiences. She has been working with these people for years and has talked to them to really understand what is it they need to be successful. That is what drove her to this. It wasn’t coming from this kind of pie-in-the-sky, 10,000-foot-view of, “Oh, this should be some future system that we want across the country.” It was responding to a real direct need that she was seeing right in front of her.

Owen: Thinking about this also from the Economic Security Project’s point of view, I’m interested in how focused they are on narrative because 15 people, you’re not going to get a robust data set where you can have a control and all that, but you will get 15 really interesting stories. That, as we’ve discussed before, is such a huge part of bringing this idea into the broader conversation that we’re having.

Jim: Absolutely, that we keep running up against these so deeply ingrained myths in our culture. This idea of the “Welfare Queen” that is not based on any reality but was something that was concocted over time as a way of demonizing people who are receiving support and that Aisha sees this as a direct way to push back on that, that the stories we get here, if we can really lift those up and humanize the people who are receiving the support, that could act as a very visceral and emotional counter to those misconceptions.

Owen: Yes. So much of what she’s contrasting this program with is that support that these people are getting and how much of an emotional toll that it has on them and also that they have to spend the day at the benefits office proving that they are needy enough to get these benefits. Yes, very exciting and looking forward to seeing what comes out of this.

Jim: Yes, we’ll have to keep a close eye and see what stories do emerge.

Alright, that’ll do it for this episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer, Erick Davidson. If you like what you hear, please do rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or the podcast service of your choice. And please, please do tell your friends about this. Any folks you know who you think might be interested in basic income. We’re always trying to reach new people. We’ll talk to you next time.

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