How a Basic Income Project Is Lifting Up Black Mothers in Poverty

Aisha Nyandoro, PhD

Community care—the idea that we play an active role in one another’s well-being—is a basic tenet of wellness and healing traditions. But in many ways, our culture is geared toward disconnect. We tend to lose sight of the fact that we’re all in it together. And the result is an environment where wellness is often considered an individual responsibility and well-being becomes a privilege. Those without money or resources get left behind.

Aisha Nyandoro, PhD, is working to resolve some of the gaps that emerge when we fail to care for one another. Nyandoro is the CEO of Springboard to Opportunities, a nonprofit that provides direct support to public housing residents in Jackson, Mississippi. One of Springboard’s programs is the Magnolia Mother’s Trust: an initiative to support the well-being of Black mothers by handing them the money they need to take care of their families without restricting how that money is used.

This is revolutionary work. For the families Nyandoro serves, the government’s social safety net is inadequate. The Magnolia Mother’s Trust envisions a world where our responsibility to one another is fundamental and our politics and policies reflect that. But until our government catches up, it’s on the rest of us: To support this work, you can donate to the Magnolia Mother’s Trust and find basic income projects near you.

By Aisha Nyandoro, PhD

As a mother of two amazing young boys, I know that being a parent can be hard. There’s a desperately needed snack that must be attended to in the middle of a meeting with my board. A finger-painting masterpiece that cannot wait until I finish my morning workout to be seen. Parenting is a frustratingly wonderful mix of joy, anxiety, and exhaustion.

For millions in America, it is exponentially harder due to deep inequities within our society and economy.

I am quickly reminded of my relative good fortune when I visit the communities served by the organization I lead—all government-subsidized housing residents in Jackson, Mississippi. Our state is known for landing last in a variety of important metrics for children and adults, such as being the least educated state and having the highest poverty rate. My organization primarily serves households for wh the situation is nothing short of dire—those headed by Black women living in extreme poverty. When you’re trying to support a family on less than $12,000 annually, the most minor things that many of us privileged enough to be in the middle class take for granted can be an insurmountable hurdle. An overdue electricity bill that comes with a hefty late fee, a payday loan to cover the bill that comes with a 200 percent interest rate—being poor is expensive, and it is stressful, especially as a mother.

Mitigating these massive challenges is the driving force behind my signature program, the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. Operating since 2018, we are the country’s longest-running guaranteed-income project and the only one in the world to focus specifically on Black women. The premise of our work is simple: Poverty is not an individual failure; it is a policy failure. The solution is important and straightforward: If people do not have enough money, give them more of it. Which is exactly what we do. For the better part of three years, we have been distributing $1,000 a month for a year to Black mothers—some of the most marginalized in our community. There are no strings attached. No hours of standing in line at a government office being treated like a parasite. No invasive questions about their personal lives. We trust that moms know what their families need better than any bureaucrat or philanthropist.

When we were designing the program, one of the first questions we asked mothers was “What would you do with a little extra money for yourself?” Most of these women had been living a life focused solely on the well-being of their kids, which led them to struggle to answer that question. One said, “I’d buy new clothes for my baby.” Okay, but that isn’t for you. They couldn’t even understand the concept of having a few extra dollars for themselves. And a lot of that comes from the fact that our existing economic policies are intended to make people feel shame for being poor or ever considering spending a few dollars on themselves. They are very effective in making people internalize that. At the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, we don’t separate out spending in good ways and bad ways. Some months, the money may go to the cell phone and internet bills. Another month, it may go toward a weekend trip for the first time in years. And both of those things are equally worthy.

We’re about to wrap our third year, and the results are clear: This program works. The payments of last year’s cohort were distributed fully during the COVID-19 pandemic, which helped recipients meet their basic needs during the chaos of 2020. In our cohort, the ability of mothers to pay all their bills on time increased from 27 percent to 83 percent. The percentage of those who had money saved for emergencies increased from 40 percent to 88 percent. The percentage of mothers reporting they had enough money for food increased from 64 percent to 81 percent.

But more than the financial stats, financial stability fuels increased agency and self-confidence. And that’s transformative. Annette was able to go back to school after years of her son asking her why she’d never gotten her college degree: “I’m showing him that it’s never too late,” she told us. “No matter how old you are, you can still go back and do what you were meant to do.” Sequaya was able to take her daughter to the beach for the first time. Ebony serves as a mentor to other women in the program. Nikki loves the community provided by the group chats—they ask her how she’s doing every morning. While these may be mundane events for many of us fortunate enough to know our entire lives won’t be derailed by a flat tire or missed food stamp appointment, they are a huge departure from the reality millions of Americans living in poverty face each day.

While the Magnolia Mother’s Trust has been life-changing for the women I serve, it is also finite. Philanthropy alone cannot support the extent of the need not only in my community but in communities across the country. My hope was always that this work would influence national policy, and it has. The expanded Child Tax Credit, part of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, is estimated to cut poverty in half for Black children. But the expansion is temporary. Why would we only cut child poverty in half? Why would we do it for only one year? A critical part of the work I do through the trust is making the case for federal interventions, like making the CTC permanent.

Financial liberation is key to this work. But it’s also about building up Black women and how they see themselves. And that means centering them in the conversations about policies and programs that affect them. I have worked to create opportunities for them to do just that, so that their voices are at the forefront of national conversations. Instead of someone else telling their story for them, they are speaking for themselves about their challenges, hopes, and dreams. There is tremendous power in finding your voice and having it heard, and that’s a huge part of what I plan to do with the next round of this program, beginning early next year. Rewriting your own narrative is more powerful than anything someone else could ever write for you.

So as I enter the next iteration of the work, I urge others to join me in the journey of envisioning a world of abundance, where prosperity is shared rather than hoarded. Where our neighbor’s child living in poverty is as abhorrent as it would be if it were our own, and where we recognize that all our fates are tied together. We all do better when we all do better. As the iconic Toni Morrison said, “If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” Let us all heed these wise words as we work to build the world as we dream it, not as it is.

Aisha Nyandoro, PhD, is the chief executive officer of Springboard to Opportunities. She previously served as a program officer for the Foundation for the Mid South. She holds a master’s in community psychology and urban affairs and a PhD in community psychology from Michigan State University.