The Ever-Growing Case for Guaranteed Income — feat. Dorian Warren and Aisha Nyandoro
Rebecca talks to Dorian Warren, co-chair of the Economic Security Project, and Aisha Nyandoro, creator of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, about the growing evidence calling for guaranteed income policies in the U.S. — and why now is the moment to finally leave the 1990s-era “work requirements” debate in the history books. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.
Results are in from the first year of a universal basic income experiment in Stockton, California, which gave randomly selected residents $500 per month with no strings attached — and they’re striking. The income boost improved recipients’ employment prospects, economic stability, physical and mental health, overall well-being, and more, according to an independent study released last week. The pilot’s striking results only add to a growing body of evidence making the case for guaranteed income policies that provide recipients unconditional cash. They come on the heels of another groundbreaking guaranteed income experiment called the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which provides low-income African-American mothers living in affordable housing with $1000 in unrestricted cash per month, for 12 months straight. The mounting evidence in support of guaranteed income as a strategy for dramatically increasing economic security comes as the U.S. begins a guaranteed income experiment of its own, in the form of a 1-year child allowance authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act — which we’ve talked lots about on this show in recent weeks. All of which seems to beg the question… is the page finally turning when it comes to U.S. income security policy? And, even if it took a global pandemic, might now finally be the moment when we finally file the 1990s-era work requirements debate in the history books in favor of a meaningful debate around guaranteed income?
To dig into the results from the Stockton and Magnolia Mother’s Trust pilots — and talk about what it would take to leave the 1990s in the rearview mirror where they belong, Rebecca sat down with Dorian Warren, co-president of Community Change, co-host of the System Check podcast, and one of the co-chairs of the Economic Security Project; and Aisha Nyandoro, CEO of Springboard To Opportunities, which takes a “radically resident-driven” approach to supporting residents of affordable housing, and is home to the Magnolia Mother’s Trust guaranteed income initiative.
This week’s guests:
- Dorian Warren, co-president of Community Change & co-chair of the Economic Security Project (@dorianwarren)
- Aisha Nyandoro, CEO of Springboard To Opportunities (@aisha_nyandoro)
- Learn more about the Stockton universal basic income experiment, and dig into the year 1 results
- Here’s more on the Magnolia Mother’s Trust guaranteed income initiative
♪ I work and get paid like minimum wage
Sights to hit the clock by the end of the day
Hot from downtown into the hood where I slave
The only place I can afford ’cause my block ain’t safe
I spend most of my time working, tryna bring in the dough…. ♪
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome back to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas.
Well, results are in from the first year of a universal basic income experiment in Stockton, California, which gave randomly selected residents $500 per month with no strings attached. And the results are striking. The income boost improved recipients’ job prospects, economic stability, physical and mental health, overall well-being, and more. This is all according to an independent study released last week.
The Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, or SEED, as it’s formally known, was launched in February 2019 by Stockton’s mayor at the time, Michael Tubbs. And it was funded by private donors, including the Economic Security Project, a network that supports experimentation with guaranteed income policies. The Stockton pilot’s striking results only add to a growing body of evidence making the case for guaranteed income policies that provide recipients with unconditional cash. And the Stockton results come on the heels of another groundbreaking guaranteed income experiment that’s been running for the past couple of years in Jackson, Mississippi. The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, as it’s called, provides low-income African-American mothers living in affordable housing with $1,000 in unrestricted cash per month, for 12 months straight.
The mounting evidence in support of guaranteed income as a strategy for dramatically increasing economic security comes as the U.S. begins a guaranteed income experiment of its own, in the form of a 1-year child allowance authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act, which we’ve talked lots about on this show in recent weeks. All of this seems to beg the question: Is the page finally turning when it comes to U.S. income security policy? And even if it took a global pandemic for us to get here, might now finally be the moment when we’re filing the 1990s-era work requirements debate in the history books in favor of a meaningful discussion about guaranteed income?
To dig into the results from the Stockton and Magnolia Mother’s Trust pilots — and talk about what it would take to leave the 1990s in the rearview mirror where they belong — I sat down with Dorian Warren, co-president of Community Change, co-host of the System Check podcast, and one of the co-chairs of the Economic Security Project, which funded the Stockton pilot; and Aisha Nyandoro, Chief Executive Officer of Springboard To Opportunities, which provides strategic, direct support to residents of affordable housing. The organization’s service delivery model uses a “radically resident-driven” approach, as they call it, designed to improve quality of life and end the generational poverty trajectory. Springboard is also home to the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. Let’s take a listen.
Aisha, Dorian, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the pod.
DORIAN WARREN: Thanks for having us.
AISHA NYANDORO: Thank you so much for having us.
VALLAS: So, I feel like we got to start with the Stockton pilot results. There’s a lot we’re going to talk about, but it feels like we kind of got to start there. They are getting a lot of attention right now, as they should be. And Dorian, for transparency, the Economic Security Project is a supporter of the Stockton Universal Basic Income Experiment. Talk a little bit about the significance of the pilot and the year-one findings that are getting some attention right now.
WARREN: Sure. Well, there’ve been lots of discussion of guaranteed income in this country over the last couple of years. But it’s one thing to do the armchair discussion. It’s another thing to actually try it out and see what happens. So, a couple years ago in Stockton, with some support from the Economic Security Project and others, 125 randomly-selected individuals living in low-income neighborhoods received $500 a month. And there was a study to see what happened! And guess what?! People spent the money on basic needs. [laughs] Let me repeat that: People spent the money on basic needs. About half of the households who saw that cash used it for food, home goods, utilities, gas. Less than one percent of the money, by the way — because this is what the right always thinks about — less than one percent of that money went to cigarettes and alcohol. Let me be real clear about that. Now, I feel a certain kind of way having to say that in the first place, because this is actually a question of dignity and freedom and allowing people the basic needs to survive.
So, what did we learn from this pilot in Stockton? We learned that income volatility went down, that people were able to have some stability in their lives. We actually learned that unlike the right-wing racists and sexists who say, “Welfare is bad, and people become dependent on welfare,” we actually saw that the people that got the guaranteed income, the $500 a month in cash, were more likely — not less likely — more likely to seek work and get a job and have stable employment. That is kind of revolutionary, Rebecca. Because for 40 years, we’ve heard, “You can’t give people, and especially poor Black mothers, welfare because they don’t know what to do with it. You need work incentives so that they go to” — It’s just all bullshit. It is all bullshit. It’s all been ideology to essentially restrict and control low-income mothers and especially low-income Black mothers from basic support and dignity. So, the Stockton study is pretty, I would say, revolutionary for this conversation in terms of how we’re talking about cash and why we need cash to support low-income families.
The last thing I’ll say, Rebecca, is that there were some mental health effects and some well-being effects as well. That the groups that received the money, the people that received the money relative to the control groups in the study who did not, actually had, they were healthier, both physically and mentally. So, there’s just all the benefit. We have the evidence now. No more ideology, no more myths, no more racist, sexist tropes. The evidence is in, and we know that cash is one of the best ways to solve poverty in America.
VALLAS: And there’s a lot more to get into in terms of the racist, sexist tropes. That’s part of why I had wanted to invite both of you onto the pod, and that’s some of what we’re going to get into. Aisha, bringing you in next. One of Springboard’s flagship initiatives is another guaranteed income pilot. It’s called the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. It’s now actually in its second cohort, so there’s already a year-one cohort that has results. You’ve found similarly positive results. Talk a little bit about the Magnolia Mother’s Trust and the story behind it and some of the results that you’ve found from that experiment so far.
NYANDORO: Yeah, no. Thank you, and thank you for the set up. And we we’re actually going into our third cohort. So, Magnolia Mother’s Trust started in 2018 with 20 mothers. And then we went from 20 mothers to 110 mothers in 2020, right before the start of the pandemic. And now we are rolling out our third cohort next month with at least 100 mothers. And our work targets specifically extremely low-income Black mothers that live in federally-subsidized affordable housing in Jackson, Mississippi. When we roll out our third cohort next month, that will have allowed us to support with a guaranteed income, a total of 230 mothers and their children because we believe in a two-generation approach. So, we not only give the moms, in real time, cash that they need to support their needs of their family and themselves, but we also establish children’s savings accounts. So, really investing in a long-term future and really working towards closing those wealth equity gaps in this country.
But let me take a step back. So, as Dorian was saying, in 2018, as SEED was getting started, Magnolia Mother’s Trust was also getting started. And we were a collective, and as with Economic Security Project, we’re a collective of advocates and partners and social change agents really working to understand how you can use cash to support families in actualizing the dreams that they have for themselves and their families. And so, when we started with Magnolia Mother’s Trust in 2018, it really was in direct response to what we were seeing play out as the real-time challenges in the communities that we work in. Springboard to Opportunities has been operating since 2013, and we take a radically resident-driven approach to our work. And what that means is that we center the needs of the families that we work with in all aspects of our programs and services.
And so, in 2017, I became a little concerned that in spite of all of the wraparound support and programs that we were providing, we were not moving the needle on poverty. And what that means is that we were not seeing a positive matriculation out of the affordable housing communities in a way in which we thought that we should be seeing, given that was the goal of so many of the families that we worked with. And so, since we’re radically resident-driven, whenever we have questions or whenever we’re concerned, we go to the residents to figure out what it is that we’re missing. And we did just that. We went, and we said, “Okay, what are we not seeing? What are we missing?” And every iteration of every conversation that we had, the common denominator was the lack of cash. It was the lack of cash with small things or things that may seem inconsequential to most of us, were like pizza on Friday night or the ability to pay for a science fair entry fees to bigger things: not being able to get your car fixed so that you can continue to go to work and those pieces. And so, it really allowed us to begin to think about, Okay, this is the challenge that we are seeing in our communities that we work in. How do we go about addressing that?
And so, we started looking at okay, how do you go about giving individuals cash? In 2017, 2018, we did not have COVID, so it was not sexy to give folks money without restrictions. And it definitely was not sexy to think about giving poor Black women, poor Black mothers, cash without restrictions. And we’ll get into the details about what some of those challenges were. But we continue to say, okay, we are going to dream about this, and we are going to make this happen. And that’s where the Magnolia Mother’s Trust came from: directly from our mothers getting $1,000 a month for 12 months, no strings attached.
And in doing that work, we were very intentional to say, Okay, we are going to do a couple of things simultaneously. We are going to give these women the resources they need to support themselves, trusting that they know exactly what it is that they need for themselves and their families. So, we are not going to give with restrictions. We’re not going to make these paternalistic or punitive aspects of what so many of them have to deal with already. We are going to go about changing the narrative of how we talk about poor Black mothers in this country and recognizing that we can trust them. And that we are going to change the narrative in that space that so many individuals actually lean into when they think about poverty, which is a false narrative, which isn’t true, and which is a narrative, unfortunately, that so many of these women now have the burden of having to carry. And then also, we were saying we were going to have conversations about the punitive aspects of our policies.
With the families that we work with, our families make less than $12,000 annually. So, we are talking about extreme poverty. At the time when we started this work, there had been no other guaranteed income projects that targeted this population. When we started, folks told me that our population was too poor to actually be worked with or too poor to actually be helped, and that we just would be throwing money away. And we were like, you know what? That is an asinine reality, and it’s really messed up that we are okay with saying that an entire subset of our population should not be supported, and that an entire subset of our population is not entitled to dream of a better life and have the support necessary to actualize a better life. And so, we did it, and we’re still doing it. So, how we started and where we are is pretty dope.
And like with the SEED results, in our first two years of this work, we have seen that women have supported their families. They have been able to prepare more nutritious meals at home. For the first time, they say they feel like they are good moms because they can take care of some of their kids at once, not just always focusing on their needs. They moved into home ownership. Folks got married. And when I thought about it, I was like, all these people are getting married. How is this happening? And then I thought about it, and I’m like, oh, if you take away the thing that you’re fussing about, of course you’ll get married because you no longer have that stress of trying to figure out how we’re going to survive. And you can really get into the radical possibilities of thriving and future cast and what is that you want for yourselves and your family.
So, as Dorian said we now have all the evidence. We’ve had all the evidence for years, quite frankly, if we look at what has happened in other countries. But in this country now, we now have all the evidence that cash works, and so now it is up to us to take that evidence and be the bold movers that we need to be in order to get to the place that we are actualizing policies in the long-term to make this the way that we go about operating and doing business normally, and it’s not just a subset of pilots and demonstration projects moving the needle forward.
VALLAS: And you make a really important point, Aisha — you make many important points — but noting that, you know, it’s not exactly rocket science in other countries, right? The research has been there. This just seems to be new for the United States to be realizing these kinds of research findings apply here as well. But I have to say, listening to these kinds of findings from these kinds of experiments, I always feel like the headline should be. “Breaking news: Giving people cash makes them less poor!” Right?
VALLAS: It’s like, wah wah, right? Like, not exactly a surprise.
VALLAS: But unfortunately, for a long time, when it comes to the conversation around poverty — and you both sort of referenced this — and especially when it comes to anti-poverty programs, the focus has instead been around how can we tie cash assistance to work and restrictions? And this was foundational, of course, to the 1990s quote-unquote “welfare reform debate,” a terrible misnomer for what that actually was. And it underpins not only the 1996 welfare law, which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), but it also underpins the rest of the United States’ heavily work-based safety net, wherein so-called work requirements and other misnomer and minimum earnings requirements are what divides people who end up getting categorized as either sort of deserving of assistance or undeserving of assistance.
And I want to just do a quick fact check tangent since I’m referencing that 1996 welfare law. Despite what you may have heard from conservative stands of that welfare law, listeners, what happened after AFDC was replaced with TANF, which for the first time required most adult recipients to participate in qualifying work activities as a condition of receiving cash assistance, is that well, some TANF recipients did initially experience gains in employment. That’s what you’ll often hear from conservatives. And that was largely because of the strength of the labor market during the booming economy of the 1990s. Those gains ultimately proved to be very short lived. Very few TANF recipients were able to secure stable long-term employment with decent wages. Many of them were unable to meet those work requirements because they had employment barriers that work requirements don’t do anything to address, like caregiving obligations, health problems, low levels of education, criminal records that can stand in the way of finding a job and on and on. And so, folks ended up, by and large, getting left without assistance, even though they hadn’t found work. So, just a little quick fact check there for anyone going, hmm, I don’t remember what happened with that welfare law.
So, cut to present day. Just last week, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act into law, and with it authorized not only another round of direct cash payments as part of broader economic relief, but the first-ever guaranteed income for families with children. And that’s because that law converts the Child Tax Credit into a fully available child allowance, at least for the next year. And this is something we’ve talked about a lot recently on the pod. So, Aisha, staying with you, you wrote an op ed last week following the bill’s passage, really kind of noting that this marks a really significant shift, a huge step beyond the 1990s framework and debate around work requirements and a welcome shift away from that kind of deserving/undeserving hubbub. And even if it took a pandemic that spurred historic joblessness to make this kind of stuff sexy, do you think that the United States is finally learning, through this COVID experience, that maybe it’s actually cruel and counterproductive and bad policy to tie basic assistance to employment status if we’re actually trying to cut poverty? Are we finally moving on from the ‘90s?
NYANDORO: Oh, my God, I pray we are. [laughs] I really hope that we are, but hope is hard to come by these days. So, I’m holding onto this guaranteed income for children with both hands, and I’m holding onto it with both hands because I really do believe that in this year of having this bill, this emergency support, I am really hoping that we do everything that we need to do as a community and as advocates to make sure that we are getting all of the data out there to individuals who are still naysayers about the importance of this and about the possibility to reform and transform poverty in this country as we know it. Because that’s what it’s going to take for us to get to legislation and for us to get to where this is, like I said earlier, just how we operate. And so, the CTC is so juicy, and it provides a wonderful opportunity. But I am really concerned that as we begin to move forward from this pandemic, and as we get back to business as usual, that we’ll go back to our old norms and our old ways of doing business. And, you know, you said earlier that our ideals about work and deservingness, those are decades worth of ideologies that individuals are going to have to grapple with and move forward from. So, I’m hoping that we can undo all of those beliefs in a year. And it’s a heavy lift, but we’re holding onto hope and really excited about the possibilities.
VALLAS: And Dorian, you were referencing this before that, you know, the work restrictions that get baked into these programs, they really don’t have anything to do with actually helping anyone work. They’re really, they’re actually bureaucratic disentitlement, a wonky phrase I often use on this show that has to do with rules that take things away from people and shrink programs through just paperwork, basically. But they’re also premised on a set of myths about poverty that quote-unquote “The Poor,” which is always sort of capital T, capital P, “The Poor”, are some stagnant group of people who just don’t want to work. Or that anyone who wants a well-paying job can just snap her fingers and make one appear. Or even that having a job is all it takes to not be poor. Aisha’s so right when she points out that this is all kind of baked into narratives that we’ve been told for decades. And a lot of this really kind of comes back to the neo-liberal narrative, which you spend a lot of time trying to put the nails in the coffin around.
WARREN: Yes, and to make the point though, I want to go back to your point about bureaucratic disentitlements. I really, that’s a great concept, Rebecca. And to give you one example of these: diapers.
WARREN: Diapers. If you have WIC or SNAP or TANF, you can’t use that money to buy diapers. And what we know is that before the pandemic — before the pandemic — one in three households could not afford diapers.
WARREN: Let me say that again. One in three U.S. families couldn’t afford diapers before the pandemic. And so, what do people do? People make do. So, they put t-shirts on or a plastic bag or whatever you can get. Talk about lack of dignity and investment in children.
WARREN: For all the right-wing neo-liberals who say they care about kids and right to life, that’s bullshit. [laughs] Because the proof is in the pudding. So, just to make the point, though, last year, the National Diaper Bank Network distributed more than 100,000,000 diapers, which was a 67 percent spike over the previous year. Diapers!
WARREN: So, what’s amazing to me about the Child Tax Credit, for instance, is that now, mothers and parents can buy diapers without restrictions with monthly cash for their kids, right?. That’s like a basic thing of dignity and investment in our future as a country to have — Like, middle-class and rich people don’t ever think about, can I afford diapers for my baby?
WARREN: Never have to think about it. And Aisha talks a lot about these folks, these policymakers, who don’t know the cost of a gallon of milk. So, we have a huge disconnect between the policymakers setting these policies and what’s actually happening with low-income and poor parents on the ground. Now, it unfortunately took a pandemic, Rebecca, to go at the long, racist, sexist narratives around who deserves support and who doesn’t. This deserving/undeserving distinction has a long history in our politics. And so, I am actually thrilled about the Child Tax Credit. And unfortunately, it took a crisis to get there. But this is sort of a leapfrog moment, potentially, in terms of our social safety net. Like, this is the moment where we actually can create a 21st century safety net that allows people to live in dignity and with freedom to make their own choices.
And I do think it’s an organizer — so, putting on my organizer hat — this is an organizing opportunity because there are millions of parents, low-income parents and particularly mothers and particularly mothers of color, who are eligible for the Child Tax Credit, but either don’t know that they’re eligible or don’t actually get that cash. And so, a lot of us are planning to talk to millions of mothers and parents about how to navigate and access this refundable Child Tax Credit, what’s as you’ve said, what’s essentially is a child allowance. And why is that important? Because it’s a temporary thing. It’s a temporary thing. It’s a huge deal that it was in the American Rescue Plan. And it’s expanded for a year, but it will expire. And so, oftentimes, in our political history and our policy history, new policies create new politics. We saw this at the creation of Social Security in 1935: It created a whole constituency that cared about that issue [chuckles] and made it, for a time, the third rail of American politics. So, what is the, this is the possibility with the Child Tax Credit and child allowances right now. How do we build a constituency of people who will actually fight for making this permanent when it expires?
And I’m actually really excited by this, I think, sea change in how we are thinking about poverty, how we are thinking about who deserves support from the federal government. And let me just say, and I just want to point out, Aisha, is part of a long, deep tradition of Black women organizing. I’m thinking a lot this morning of Johnnie Tillmon from the National Welfare Rights Organization who fought for guaranteed annual income in the ’60s because at the time, the precursor to TANF, AFDC was racist. It was not adequate for support for mothers. There were barriers to actually getting the cash. So, this is a law, and this is like 50 years in the making, I just have to say. It’s not like, hey, kudos to President Biden. Kudos to the members of Congress who’ve been fighting: Rosa DeLauro, Cory Booker on the Senate side have been fighting for the Child Tax Credit for a long time. But this actually comes out of Black women’s organizing and struggles from over 50 years ago.
NYANDORO: Yeah, and —
VALLAS: Well, and — Go ahead, Aisha.
NYANDORO: Yeah, no. I definitely want to lift up all of those pieces of what Dorian was just saying. And you know, in thinking about this opportunity and this moment that we have specifically, I’m struck with how we actually have a real opportunity to make sure that we are centering the needs of families in allowing them that support, to be empowered, to carry the change forward, to get it from not just this year to beyond. Like what Dorian was saying, this is a massive opportunity for organizing because there are so many families. You know, none of the families that we work with, as we’ve been doing outreach the last couple weeks, knew that this was coming as it relates to the CTC and what that means. And so, it really is an opportunity to allow families to advocate for themselves and to really help to lead that connection between what happens with policy and what happens in the White House, to really understand how that actually shows up in your life and in community. So, demystifying what that looks like for so many families is a potential opportunity, not just for this moment, but way down the road. The potential impact of community building and organizing and having families in power that they can affect change and what that looks like for themselves is going to be massive as we continue to move forward with policies that are equitable for everyone, not just a few of us in this country.
VALLAS: And it’s so important to kind of keep beating that drum that this is not about, “Let’s check the box. We did it. American Rescue Plan Act: historic, landmark, huge.” But a lot of the provisions in there, including that child allowance, are temporary, are just for a year. Really important to be centering the need to take on this next fight of making it permanent, which we know organizers are thinking about, policy folks are thinking about. We’re all thinking about it right now, and that really is kind of the next fight beginning.
But I want to really dig in to the racial aspect of this debate. And you guys have both brought it up in various ways, but let’s go there. We’ve been talking a lot about the 1990s debate that we are all so eager to move on from, and maybe now can be that moment. But it feels really important to call a spade a spade as we talk about that debate, given that the debate around the 1990s welfare law was incredibly racialized. And I’m going to lift up political scientist Martin Gilens here, his landmark book, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy. He found that, looking at public opinion polls over the years, that most Americans strongly support concrete policies that help struggling families, but that’s only as long as they’re not targeted as quote unquote “welfare.” And that most Americans, at the same time, also hold an opposing view in their heads, which is opposition to spending more on “welfare.” And he looks at why is that? What is the history there?
A big part of that lack of sympathy for things that’ve been tagged as welfare — not something that should be an epithet in and of itself and is not in most other countries — well, a big part of the story stems from the media’s distorted coverage of poverty. And in particular, Black Americans have been overrepresented in unsympathetic media portrayals of poverty, he found — he’s not the only who found this, but one of the kind of landmark studies looking at this — and in ways that reinforced the stereotyping of Black people as lazy. This was, of course, especially true in the 1990s, when the myth of the welfare queen, courtesy of Ronald Reagan, was a core driver of the conversation and ultimately the 1996 welfare law.
And I also want to lift up Professor Sanford Schram, who also has research in this space around, how did welfare become a political epithet, as I described it, in the U.S.? Well, it actually dates back to, as you were describing Dorian, the history following the Civil Rights revolution and the decades following there, when it became associated with African Americans.
So, Dorian, first to you, and then Aisha, I want to bring you in on this as well, has the pandemic broken open the conversation around poverty and cash assistance in a way that might actually allow us to move beyond these distorted racist memes of who quote-unquote “The Poor” capital T, capital P are? And if so, do we want to be moving beyond race in these conversations to racially-neutral conversations like a universal child allowance? Or do we still need to be centering race, but in a new and different and more productive way? How do you see that right now?
WARREN: Well, I think we have to continue to center race, and here’s why. The whole myth of the welfare queen, which Ronald Reagan made a corner piece of his 1980 run for the presidency. He talked about this Black woman from South Side Chicago or West Side Chicago, with Cadillac and blah, blah, blah. That was how he won the presidency: by doubling down on this racist, sexist trope. And what’s underneath it, Rebecca, is simply who belongs and who doesn’t in this country, who is a equal citizen deserving of equal rights and dignity and who doesn’t. And that is how this conversation has been constructed by the right for not just the last 50 years, but essentially go back to 1619, where myths were propagated that Black people were lazy and didn’t want to work, and therefore that’s why they had to be enslaved and, right? So, there’s a long history of this racist trope around fundamentally who’s deserving of support because they belong and are full and equal citizens. And so, we have to go at that trope head on.
Now, here’s the reason why it was always a myth. I mentioned Johnnie Tillmon earlier from the National Welfare Rights Organization. When she was organizing around the idea of a guaranteed annual income in the late ’60s, early ’70s, there was a Southern senator who said, and on the floor of Congress, I can’t be supportive of a guaranteed annual income because essentially, who’s going to iron my shirts?
WARREN: Who’s going to iron my shirts if these Black women don’t have to work? So, it wasn’t actually a dog whistle. It was really explicit, right? So, welfare is often, what we say as welfare, it’s often been used as a system of labor control around Black bodies, and particularly around Black women. And so, you can’t just go to race neutral from that long history. [chuckles]
Now, the pandemic has created a crisis that has helped to rupture the notion of deservingness and undeservingness. And it’s a moment. And we can go back to the long history of exclusion and racism, or we can chart a new path in this moment. And so, that’s what the organizing task is right now: to take on these dominant narratives that Aisha’s been doing, both with her voice as well as in practice on the ground in Mississippi. You have to take on the narrative and create new narratives of freedom and justice. But you also have to fight. And by fight, I mean you have to organize and actually organize among the people most directly affected — those people that can’t afford a diaper, for instance — and say, “You belong here. You’re deserving of all the support the government — ” Look. White, middle-class families got a whole bunch of government support: mortgages, GI Bill. Like, we could go down the line of the 20th-century welfare state for white people. They thought they were deserving of that, but they excluded Black people.
So, this is, we need to shift to a different conversation around who belongs, who deserves, and frankly, what kind of government support offers dignity and freedom to people? That is, those are the principles for the fight ahead of us to make sure that the child allowance is permanent and to expand the conversation around what does it take to end poverty in America. We used to be ambitious. We used to think we could actually abolish poverty. There’s a whole conversation right now about abolishing police. I’m really interested in abolishing poverty. And so, once you start talking about how do we abolish poverty, that takes you to a different conversation.
The last thing I’ll say on this, I’ve talked to, over the last year, I’ve talked to lots of people at diaper banks and food banks. And someone I talked to who runs a food bank in North Carolina said that their job is to feed the line, which has been of historic proportions all around the country at food banks, the lines. Their job is to feed the line and to shorten line. I would argue we have to abolish the line. [baby starts fussing in the background] There should not be diaper banks and food banks in the United States of America, which is the richest country in the history of the world. That is obscene. It is immoral, it is wrong, and it’s time to fundamentally abolish poverty in America. And I think that’s the trajectory that we’re on in this moment.
VALLAS: And Dorian, I can hear in the background, you’ve got a coworker who agrees that we should not have the line.
WARREN: That’s her saying amen. That’s her saying amen. [laughs]
VALLAS: So, Aisha, I want to bring you in on this same question and this same theme, and in particular also just lifting back up because you described it before, but it’s so relevant it as we get into this aspect of this conversation. The Magnolia Mother’s Trust specifically targets Black mothers. And that was very much front and center in the program’s design. Why did you think that was important when you initially designed the project? And why is that core to part of what you’re trying to do with disproving those naysayers you described before?
NYANDORO: So, a couple of different things with going back to the conversation about the tropes. You know, the myth of the welfare queen is one of the most egregious tropes out there. And like Dorian was saying, it’s just, first off, it’s not true. White folks have always been the biggest beneficiaries of welfare. But by attaching racism and sexism to it, politicians are able to slash the social safety net by mistakenly having people believe it’s only going to affect Black women. And piece the beyond the policy effects that are still alive and well today is that it’s extremely toxic in the ways it affects poor Black women’s vision of themselves. And that’s, for me, is the part of it that is the most damaging and most concerning is the way that these conversations and these false narratives, the way they’re allowed to attach themselves to the individuals and how they impact their dignity and their voice and their ideal of what it is that they’re worth. Imagine having society look down upon you and constantly having to internalize that and telling you what you are capable of and what it is that you deserve. So, so much of the work that we have to do in this moment moving forward is make sure that those who have been impacted most deeply by these narratives, that we allow them to support to get their voice back.
One of our moms I was talking to a couple of weeks ago, and she was telling me her story. And she talked about the hardest part of her life was when she was 16, and she got pregnant. And she was like, it wasn’t because she became pregnant, but she was like she was so sad because she felt that she had become a statistic. And that’s the piece of the taking away of your voice that we allow to happen when we attach these false narratives onto individuals. And when these false narratives are so loud that we don’t allow them to hear about the work of Black women organizers in the NWRO who’s been working and mobilizing for years, and what was said from Johnnie Tillmon about, you know, we may be poor welfare women, but we’ll liberate women in this country. So, they don’t get that narrative. They just get this one false narrative.
And so much of the work with the Magnolia Mother’s Trust has been, as you said, in fact, reversing that and allowing women to, allowing Black women to, understand that you are going to be the champions for how we create a new course forward and providing the model of what it looks like to recognize and support those who have been most victimized intentionally in this country by the programs and services and policies that we put in place. And how we use that as a frame to move forward and better this country as a whole. So, for us, the centering of Black mothers in our work, and not just the centering of the Black mothers, and the understanding that this is your work, that everything of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust came directly from community. From our project design, to the amount of money to when we stop, if we ever stop with guaranteed income, all of that is designed by our women. And how powerful is that to understand that three years ago when we started this, that the 15 women sitting around a table with me, helping me dream what this could look like, that those women have had a small part in making history. And those women have had a small part in creating a blueprint for how we can really go about centering the needs of those families who have been considered the least deserving. How we go about centering those needs in the conversations about equity and change.
VALLAS: So, as the law was getting signed, the bill was getting signed into law, the American Rescue Plan Act, which we’ve talked a couple of times about now, that created that guaranteed income for families with children, lots of progressives all celebrating, lots of average Americans out there, voters all celebrating, given how popular that law is. But it wasn’t universally celebrated. You know, it’s worth kind of the reality check, just as a reminder that the bill did not receive a single Republican vote in the House or in the Senate. We did see some bipartisan —
WARREN: Yeah, although there’s some trying to take credit for it now, even though they voted against it. [laughs]
VALLAS: Which is just such a thing to actually behold, every tweet, every quote I’m seeing where it’s oh my, it’s a little, it’s a little much. But setting that aside and a good point, Dorian, a good reminder. But there was, at least for a minute, a little bit of bipartisan support for the idea of this child allowance in the form of Senator Mitt Romney putting out actually his own proposal for a child allowance. It wasn’t perfect. It paid for itself with cuts to existing programs like TANF, which we’ve been talking about. But still bipartisan support for the notion of guaranteed income, at least for families with children. At the same time, you tune in to Fox News, which I try to do here and there to see what folks are saying, and you got several prominent conservatives ringing the alarm bells, really, really concerned that we’re shifting away from the 1990s work requirements approach. So, a little bit of a different reaction than what the two of you and I have been feeling as we’re all holding onto hope.
And interestingly, a number of them have actually been sort of saying the quiet part out loud in the process, maybe not quite as bad as the example you lifted up, Dorian, of saying that they’re worried about who’s going to iron their shirts, but, you know, somewhere on that same spectrum. You got Larry Kudlow, who was, of course, one of Trump’s economic advisers, screaming on Fox last week after the bill was signed into law about how he couldn’t find anything in the bill that increased work requirements, and how scared he was that this might mark a shift away from the 1990s approach. He said, quote, “Doesn’t this blow up the Clinton-Gingrich welfare reform and work requirements approach? There’s nothing I can find in here that increases work requirements.” I particularly enjoyed watching that segment, in case that’s not clear.
But we also saw just a couple of other examples, and not from Fox News, a little bit more in the mainstream, Scott Winship, who is another prominent conservative lover of the 1996 welfare law, another welfare law stan. He was in a debate with Sam Hammond of the Niskanen Center, who actually was on this show recently. And Sam being a supporter of the child allowance, Scott Winship being an opponent. And he said, “If we aren’t paternalistic enough, people will make suboptimal choices,” right? So, there he is fighting for paternalism. And then this one sort of took the cookie for me, to mix metaphors. Oren Cass, who is over at American Compass, a conservative think tank, put out a widely lambasted New York Times op ed that I was frankly surprised actually got printed in which he actually said, “Money doesn’t address the root causes of poverty,” which was just a real head scratcher to me and a lot of people.
Tell me if y’all disagree, but I have to say it actually seems like the 1996 welfare stans, welfare law stans, are actually starting to see the writing on the wall and are starting to worry that maybe that 1990s welfare work requirements debate is starting to be about as cool and relevant these days as Myspace. Tell me if you read that differently.
WARREN: [long pause] I used to…. [laughs]
NYANDORO: I started laughing when you said, “Cool and relevant as Myspace.”
WARREN and NYANDORO: [belly laugh]
NYANDORO: I’m sorry! I was not prepared. Oh, gosh, it took me.
WARREN: I could start on this. I’ll be quick. Look, they’re mad because they’re losing power.
WARREN: This is a crisis for the right wing. And you only have to look at the 253 voter suppression bills that’ve been introduced since January to understand: If you cannot win on ideas and policies, what do you do? You freak and cheat, period. You rig the rule.
NYANDORO: And I’ll say, and you win the fear mongering.
WARREN: And fear, right? You demonize. Demonization, fear, lying, and cheating, right? [laughs] I kind of learned this back in the day from my mama. Like, don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. Well, that’s basically the strategy of the modern conservative movement: Lie, cheat, and steal. And so, that’s what happens when you can’t win the debate, when you don’t have any new ideas. When you are actually trying to simply reinforce an existing hierarchy or even caste system in this country, then you have to do these shenanigans. And so, I do think they do see the writing on the wall. I often say, policy is simply power relations frozen in a moment in time. [baby starts crying] And the fact of the American Rescue Plan Act as a reflection of the power, particularly of Black and brown folks, who helped to win the election in November. And by the way, none of that would’ve been possible in the American Rescue Plan with, it all goes through Georgia. It all goes through Georgia on January 5th.
And what did we see? We heard Reverend Warnock this week eloquently, in his first speech on the floor of the Senate, talk about how not even 12 hours after the victory in Georgia — which again, shout out to the Black women organizers on the ground, Stacey Abrams and Nse Ufot, and so many others — not just 12 hours after that historic win, we see a white supremacist and nationalist insurrection on the Capitol. So, these things are linked. That is a reflection of their declining power, right? If they can’t, they can’t win elections, they can’t play by the rules, so what do you resort to? You resort to violence. You resort to insurrection. You resort to overturning something and lying about who voted and who didn’t. And so, that’s all they have. So, this is also a really fragile, perilous moment in our country as well.
I’m super optimistic, Rebecca, about the American Rescue Plan Act and about the Child Tax Credit and cash relief. There are lots of other things I would’ve liked; it was still a little too exclusive. A whole bunch of essential workers and immigrants got left out. But we are at a really critical moment, and we can go in one of two paths. We can either keep going forward and innovating and actually providing dignity and equality for every person in this country, or we’re going to go back to Jim Crow 2.0. That is the path that we’re on. And so, part of what I want to say is it takes organizing and staying engaged and involved. We got to show up, and we got to keep showing up, because this is a long fight. This is not over with the passage of the American Rescue Plan. That was just the Opening Act. Now we’re on Act 2 and Act 3 and 4, and by, you know, [laughs] and in 10 years, by 2031, we’re going to see, I hope, a very, a radically different country.
VALLAS: Quick pause just to say if someone is typing, probably pause on that or mute yourself, because we want to get background noise. So, just quick flag. All right. And Will, you can take that out, but just wanted to do that while we close out. OK, coming back in.
So, we’re going to run out of time. And there’s lots more that I wanted to talk about with you guys. But let’s just quickly get in one other aspect of the guaranteed income conversation that is really, really, I feel, important and timely to bring into this conversation, given what we’ve been kind of moving through this morning. And that is just a quick sort of reminder that as much as we’re all saying yay, guaranteed income, and we’re hoping that this is the direction that the conversation moves away from that tired 1990s welfare law debate, not all proposals for guaranteed income are created equal. Not all proposals for guaranteed income are necessarily actually good policy. And there’s a lot of conversation going on right now, particularly because of the New York City mayoral race, around one of the candidates in that race, Andrew Yang, who also previously ran for president and on a similar platform.
Yang has a proposal for a guaranteed income that has been drawing a lot of critique from a lot of folks who otherwise think that guaranteed income can actually be a good idea. And one of the critiques is that while he, on the one hand, has been talking a lot about how guaranteed income, as he’s proposing it, could reduce poverty, the way that he’s designed his proposal would actually replace much of, if not all, of the rest of the safety net in a way that would end up leaving a lot of low-income folks actually worse off rather than better off. For folks who are looking to understand more about that, we’ll put in our show notes an op ed from Bryce Covert in The New York Times that I think really, really kind of walked through the issues in a clear and well-explained way.
I would love to hear each of you, if you’d like, react a little bit to that debate going on in the New York City mayoral race context right now and how you feel about proposals that might guarantee income on the one hand, but actually take away on the other by replacing the rest of the safety net with just a single check. And Dorian, Aisha, I’m not sure who wants to take that one first.
WARREN: I’ll take it first and just say the Yang proposal’s not progressive. It’s not. Cutting the social safety net? That’s not a progressive position. So, he’s not progressive in that sense. Look, I used to be a college professor, and I assigned a lot of reading in all my courses. And I would always know the students who came in who hadn’t done the reading because they would actually talk more than the students who had. And Andrew Yang hasn’t done the reading. I’m going to need him to do the reading. I’m going to read some books on the National Welfare Rights Organization. I going to need him to read some books on the Black Panthers. I going to need him to read some books on Dr. King and not inappropriately take them out of context. Because this idea of a guaranteed income has a long Black political tradition that is not about technology taking jobs, that’s not about ending welfare. So, I’m going to need him to do the reading. And I’m going to need him to step his game up [laughs] and actually bring his folks along and say actually, to be a true progressive in the race for New York City mayor, particularly when you have another candidate who is actually the daughter of George Wiley, who helped to co-found the National Welfare Rights Organization, I’m going to need you to do some reading. I need you to do the reading. I’m going to need you to show up a little differently. And if you really want to be a progressive and run as a progressive candidate, then you need to have progressive policy positions. [baby fusses] And that is not Andrew Yang’s UBI position at this point.
VALLAS: And the co-organizer agrees again. Lots of agreement from Professor Warren’s household there. And Professor Warren, with his clear message, do the reading, is what he says. Aisha, is there anything you want to weigh in there about that Yang proposal?
NYANDORO: Yeah, definitely. I think with all of the guaranteed income pilots and projects and proposals that are out there, I definitely think the details, the devil is in the details. And I think the idea that you can give someone $1,000 a month and you can dismantle all of the other benefits that they receive, I think it is a painful disconnect from the reality of what poverty looks like. And so, for individuals who are seeking to do this work and proposing this work, definitely do the reading. But then also get in the community and make sure that what it is that you are proposing is what the community needs. And for those of us who are doing cash, my one piece of advice to folks always is to make sure that you are doing good without harm. And clearly in this instance, that is not what is being proposed, and that’s not okay. Because that’s not of the people. That is ego-driven and that is ideology and that is pseudo-progressiveness, as Dorian was just saying. And it’s not what we need, and that’s not what community needs. So, there’s a way to do it better. You have lots of models out there to help inform how you do it better. And so, let’s really talk about how do we go about alleviating poverty and not just positioning ourselves.
VALLAS: And we’re going to have to leave it there, because that’s the time I have with you guys. But I wish we had all day. There is so much more to get into, and there’s lots more to watch in the weeks and months ahead, not only with that organizing effort around the newly expanded Child Tax Credit, child allowance in the American Rescue Plan Act, but also with the new cohorts of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust and additional findings to come from Stockton and so much more. So, I look forward to talking and thinking and working with both of you who have been so important to centering this conversation in the place that it needs to be. And I hope that we are indeed moving on and that the folks who are starting to wring their hands, realizing that they’re not quite cool anymore and that the 1990s aren’t so cool anymore, I hope that they’re right that that writing is indeed going to stay on the wall. But it’s incumbent on all of us to make that writing stick on the wall in these weeks and months and years ahead.
Aisha Nyandoro is the chief executive officer of Springboard to Opportunities, which is home to the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. Dorian Warren is co-president of Community Change, co-host of the System Check podcast, and one of the co-chairs of the Economic Security Project. And you can find lots more about both of their efforts, the Stockton results, the Magnolia Mother’s Trust results, and more in our show notes as you always know you can. Dorian, Aisha, thank you so much for taking the time. And I have to say, this was a really, really fun conversation.
WARREN: Thank you so much, Rebecca.
NYANDORO: Thank you.
WARREN: And I’m always, just always joyful to be in conversation with my sister, Aisha.
NYANDORO: Aw, miss you, friend.
WARREN: You too, sis.
VALLAS: And that does it for this episode of Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. The show is produced by Will Urquhart. Find us on the airwaves on the We Act Radio Network and the Progressive Voices Network, and say hi and send us your show pitches on Twitter @OffKilterShow. And of course, find us anytime on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next time.
♪ I want freedom (freedom)
Now, I don’t know where it’s at
But it’s calling me back
I feel my spirit is revealing,
And now we just tryna get freedom (freedom)
What we talkin’ bout…. ♪