The COVID-19 crisis has revealed how deeply flawed our social safety net is.
In the last four weeks, close to 22 million people have applied for unemployment, and families across America are sleepless at night wondering how they will keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.
It is increasingly clear that what people need most is a direct, sustained, unrestricted cash benefit. The question on many people’s mind is, “How do we get there?”
The answer: Start with Black women.
Policymaking does not happen in a vacuum. Multiple factors determine which policies can get passed—and which can’t—and among the main drivers of policymaking are narratives. More than just stories, narratives contribute to our understanding of the world. They are our cultural frames of reference and mental models, and play a significant role in how leaders create and implement policies.
Black women have been the subject of the most horrid, false, and damaging narrative—the myth of the “welfare queen”—which depicts them as promiscuous, dishonest and undeserving of public benefit programs. Politicians have used this narrative to systematically dismantle and divest from our social safety net. And this narrative also places hurdles in the movement toward Guaranteed Income.
The racist myth of the welfare queen was profoundly consequential in advancing its insidious narrative—so much so that it made the face of poverty synonymous with Black women. This in turn made it easier to believe that poor people were lazy, constantly looking for ways to cheat the system, and could not be trusted.
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These persistent underlying beliefs are why one of the top questions asked when any type of Guaranteed Income policy is discussed is, “But how will they spend the money?”
There is an automatic, knee-jerk assumption that poor people won’t make good decisions with the cash received, and that their behavior needs to be controlled. This has everything to do with anti-black sentiment—as the “they” in question is routinely externalized as Black women thanks to the welfare queen mythology, a damaging trope that hurts not only Black women but all people in need of help.
The best way to overcome this embedded, anti-Black narrative is to follow the lead of the Magnolia’s Mother’s Trust and give cash directly to Black women.
As part of Black Maternal Health Week (April 11-17), a San Francisco Black-led collaborative, Expecting Justice, is doing just that by starting a cash benefit program called The Abundant Birth Project targeted at pregnant Black women.
Rooted in racial justice, these innovative programs act as important narrative and policy disruptors around the idea of unrestricted cash benefits by targeting the population that has been harmed most severely by our restrictive, paternalistic and dignity-stripping welfare programs: Black women.
Throughout the United States, Black women face appalling health outcomes due to systemic racism within the healthcare system and workplace, leading to psychological stress that impacts their physical health.
In San Francisco, the picture is no better as Black mothers make up an astounding 50 percent of the maternal mortality rate, even though they only represent 4 percent of overall births in the city.
Recognizing the transformative potential cash can have in improving the health outcomes of pregnant Black women, this first ever pilot program will give 100 Black women up to $1000 per month during pregnancy and postpartum to help address the extremely dismal maternal outcomes of Black women in San Francisco.
By giving cash to Black pregnant women directly, we counter false narratives by trusting Black women to make the best decisions for their families. This approach also pushes us to re-evaluate how we think about who is deserving and who is not. Ultimately, this type of targeted program challenges us to reimagine the policy choices that shape our social safety net.
Make no mistake, cash programs should not be used as a substitute to all public good programs. We still need to ensure that everyone—no matter their work or immigration status—has access to quality, responsive healthcare, affordable housing and equal opportunities to good jobs with benefits. Unrestricted cash is one of the supports needed to create a just and inclusive society.
COVID-19 is showing us that we need more than a temporary fix for our societal structures. Naming and addressing the deep-seated racist narratives that created these entrenched inequities is the first step to building the public and political will to correct them. Centering the experiences and needs of Black women should be our future-forward strategy for ensuring economic justice for all.
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