Monday, Jan. 9, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The concept of “guaranteed income” — a monthly no-strings, unrestricted cash payment given to individuals — needs a bit of a rebrand. Who wouldn’t want a bit of extra cash every month? Unstrung cash. The concept has been around for a few years now and tried in a few cities. Supporters believe a preponderance of Americans is living on the economic edge. They’re working — or trying. Though maybe they can’t afford child care. Or they lack reliable transportation.
Or perhaps the stress of stretching every month is simply too strenuous.
The few extra dollars pull them from the brink. They’ll use them wisely, to fill a necessary need. A need that pumps the money back into the economy. Or eliminates debt. Or builds a nest for the future.
There are critics, of course. There always are when new, maybe radical ideas are on the table. Outside-the-box ideas. Guaranteed-income haters view it as an undeserved handout that would douse the recipient’s desire to work and be squandered on unneeded luxuries rather than to fund real needs.
That’s not the case. Not even close, according to the Chicago-based Shriver Center on Poverty Law. “Participants in these programs,” it reported last year, “are using funds in ways that benefit their families’ long-term economic health — by paying for rent in a better school district, taking a community college course to improve job skills, saving to cover the expenses of starting a small business, or eliminating old debts that would otherwise trap a family in perpetual poverty.”
It’s certainly not the case with Miyah Ford, an aspiring surgeon and mother of three who dropped out of nursing school when she became pregnant with her first child.
She was among 110 single mothers in Birmingham, Ala., who began receiving $375 monthly last March through Embrace Mothers, a guaranteed-income pilot program launched in partnership with Mayors for Guaranteed Income (MGI) and funded with a $500,000 foundation grant. The final payment, delivered via debit card, comes in February.
“Women — the very backbone of our communities — are the most likely to be underemployed, underpaid, and lacking adequate work supports such as child care, paid leave, and health care,” explained Melanie Bridgeforth, president and CEO of Women’s Foundation of Alabama.
Ford’s initial plan was to save the money, maybe spending some on children’s clothes. She’d just gotten a gig at Children’s Hospital and moved into a new apartment. Her salary covered most expenses. “I could put the ($375) toward their future funding,” she says.
Life has a way, alas. Yes, it does.
Not long after the payments began, Ford learned she was pregnant. There were no issues with her first pregnancies, but she says being on her feet at work sparked the complications. When the hospital couldn’t accommodate her medical restrictions, she lost her job.
“I had just gotten the apartment, and literally just put down my deposit, which was pretty much half of my last check. … Because I lost my job, the money ultimately became what I relied on for handling everything.”
That’s the economic edge, the precipice from which many fall. Into homeless. Into desperation. Into a deep pit of dependency.
Into a place Ford avoided. The guaranteed income allowed her and her children to remain in the apartment. It paid for needed diapers and clothes. “My son’s always growing, his feet are always growing,” she says. “The program came at a good time. It’s pretty much kept me afloat. Had I not had it, I know I would have been stressed all the time.”
The city doesn’t know the identities of all but a few of the women in the program who, like Ford, self-identified. The funds are distributed on a debit card, which allowed tracking of how it was spent. The largest share (34.4%) went to food and groceries, followed closely (31.7%) by retail sales and services. Transportation (13.6%) and housing/utilities (10.6%) were the only other categories exceeding 10%.
This, too, is known: The group averaged 2.1 children in the home and the median annual income was $12,300.
Breathing room. That’s the term Embrace Mothers liaison Sarah McMillen, the city’s manager of workforce and talent development, often uses.
“One of the mothers was telling us she selfishly used some of her first payment for something irresponsible,” she recalls. “She said she took her daughters out to dinner, and how much of a luxury it was. … She said it was nice for everyone to be able to get what they wanted and not be stressed. That was a wonderful testament that people don’t have a lot of breathing room — a lot of wiggle room month to month.”
Life has a way. Yes, it does.
Embrace Mothers ends next month. The payments stop. Ford still wants to be a surgeon. Believes in her heart she’ll return to nursing school. Maybe it’ll happen one day because she received $375 a month for a year. A year that kept her from the edge.
“I’m going back to work, and I’m gonna get my child care situated,” she says, “I’m still getting adjusted to having three kids — a toddler and a newborn.”
Adjusted to life’s way — with a little help. Help from the brink. Guaranteed.
Who wouldn’t want that? Who doesn’t deserve it?
Roy Johnson is a columnist for al.com.