It’s been over half a century since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., organizing for the Poor People’s Campaign, explained how the federal government provided white people with an economic floor upon which to build, shape and nurture institutional white supremacy in the United States.
When King said “we’re coming for our check,” he was very clear that generational wealth was one of the keys to surviving in a nation that prefers free Black labor to free Black people, and that it was time to liberate capital from the tight fists and cold hearts of those descended from the very people who enslaved our ancestors.
If it was time then, then it’s past time now.
Today, 54 percent of Black children live in poverty, compared to 19 percent of white children. Single Black women with a bachelor’s degree ages 20-39 have a median net worth of -$11,000 (yes, you read that right, it’s a negative) to $0, while single white women have a net worth range of $3,400 to $7,500. The numbers are even worse for Black women and their families in Mississippi—where Black women make 56 percent of what a white man makes.
This is why the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, the first guaranteed income initiative that specifically focuses on Black women living in deep poverty in affordable housing in the United States, is of vital importance. Last year, Springboard to Opportunities was able to give 20 Black mothers living in subsidized housing $1,000 every month no strings attached. We plan to do it again this year, but go bigger.
We wanted to test what would happen if we empowered Black women to be the authors of their own lives—with the understanding that they, and they alone, know what their families need. We wanted to explore what would happen if institutional power and resources were used in the service of Black women and not for their confinement and destruction.
Although the initial pilot was small, the findings have been mighty. Collectively, mothers paid off over $10,000 in predatory debt. The evaluation results also showed extremely promising effects on families: More than double the amount of households were preparing the majority of their food at home. The women saw a 15 percent increase in employment, and 60 percent of mothers reported borrowing money at least once in the prior six months at the start of the project. No mothers reported borrowing money at six-month check in. This suggests the monthly stipend has curative effects in terms of over-reliance on emergency financing and borrowing.
“I was able to not have to ask people for half of my bills, I’m able to pay them all,” said Erania Smith, a mother of four returning to school for a degree in administrative assistance who took part in the first round of the program. “It just felt that I had a weight lifted off of my shoulders because that stipend, then and now, is truly a blessing. It’s still helping me and my family out as we speak.”
For the first time in their lives, many of the women were afforded the freedom to live and breathe.
Why is this so extraordinary? We know that Black women and children are more likely to live in deep poverty than any other demographic. Our country’s economic system has historically barred Black people from not just upward mobility, but basic human necessities such as water, food and shelter. Practices like redlining and discriminatory employment policies have led to the current reality of massive income and wealth gaps between people of color and their white counterparts.
Black women are disproportionately harmed standing in those gaps. This is the American nightmare. This is what slow genocide looks like. And there comes a time when we have to say no more.
The Magnolia Mother’s Trust will move from a pilot project to a full demonstration project in March 2020, providing financial support and social capital to a minimum of 75 Black women and their children. We are excited about the magic and possibilities that will materialize as these women are given an opportunity to author their own lives. We know there will be more stories similar to Erania’s—where women are able to not only pay all their bills, but to dream of what comes next.
This work is about more than guaranteed income. It is about the shaping and nurturing of radical possibilities. Our goal is to place Black women at the center— not at the center of pain, but of pathways to plenty—so that our communities, our families, we, can do more than survive, can thrive, can secure in a place of becoming.
Because that is the magic of Black women: our ability to create worlds out of what Lucille Clifton calls “starshine and clay”—in spite of the barriers erected in our way; our ability to conjure horizons we’ve never seen before by faith and by might in spite of; our ability to dream, invent, build and love in spite of. But what does it mean for Black women to exist and thrive, not in the “in spite of,” but from a place of peace, support, and security? The Magnolia Mother’s Trust is a platform to help usher this vision forward.
It’s past time to abandon the “in spite of”—and find out what it looks to live and operate in freedom.