Putting Poor Black Mothers Front and Center

poor black mothers; front and center; ms magazine; magnolia mothers trust; guaranteed income; intersectional feminism

One of the first stories ever published by Ms. was written by Johnnie Tillmon, the chair of the National Welfare Rights Organization. In it, she spoke about her experience as a single, Black mother living in poverty and introduced the concept of a “Guaranteed Adequate Income” to compensate everyone—especially women performing care work—for all the unpaid labor that keeps society going. 

Now, nearly a half century later, we’re continuing Tillmon’s fight and our ongoing commitment to inclusive feminism with a new series called Front and Center—featuring pieces written by the women of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. The program provides more than 100 Black mothers living in extreme poverty in Jackson, Miss., a guaranteed income of $1,000 a month for a year. Beginning Thursday, you’ll hear first-hand about their struggles, their children, their work, their relationships and their dreams for the future. 

Over the course of the series, we’ll follow along to see how they navigate a life-changing year—from taking part in the guaranteed income program Tillmon hoped for 50 years ago to receiving the expanded child tax credit (CTC) providing $300 monthly per child to nearly every parent in the country. Through these two interventions, the women will see their incomes triple. Still, all will be below the poverty line. These tensions show us the universal truth of women in America—that progress is undeniable, but we still have so far to go.

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We can see this winding journey play out in another recent look at how the past is prologue: JFK’s Commission on the Status of Women. A multi-racial group of women convened over the course of 18 months in the early ‘60s, ultimately putting forward an agenda of paid maternity leave, affordable child care, income guarantees and anti-discrimination policies—all issues we’re still fighting for 60 years later.

poor black mothers; front and center; ms magazine; magnolia mothers trust; guaranteed income; intersectional feminism
On Dec, 14, 1961, President Kennedy established the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum / Facebook)

Imagine the world we would have if the recommendations of these feminists had been taken up then. Instead of the tremendous career setbacks female workers—particularly Black and Brown women—have endured during the pandemic, we’d have a support system in place to weather the storm so that women could re-enter the workforce as easily as their male counterparts. 

But, there is reason to be hopeful. We are at a unique moment in our history where the deeply entrenched problems of racism and sexism are finally being exposed and addressed by a broad swath of the population. The pandemic has cracked open some much-needed empathy within our leaders, who seem to be listening to the growing number of voices calling for an economy that works for all. We see this in the recently-passed American Rescue Plan supporting families with its CTC expansion—a temporary feature Democrats have vowed to make permanent. 

One can look to the Magnolia Mother’s Trust for reason to be optimistic. Results over the past two years of the program show the undeniable impact of investing in women: 27 percent of moms were more likely to go to a doctor if they were sick, 20 percent more likely to have children performing above grade level, more than double preparing the majority of their food at home, recipients paying off thousands in predatory debt.

poor black mothers; front and center; ms magazine; magnolia mothers trust; guaranteed income; intersectional feminism
Racist and particularly anti-Black racist policymakers have long designed social safety net programs, especially in the South, and particularly in Mississippi, to provide the least possible support with the most possible restrictions. (Kellogg Foundation)

Front and Center will highlight the results for a new group of moms, allowing readers to hear directly from the women at the heart of our country’s racial, gender and economic issues. The intention is to lift up voices that are too often neglected in our public discourse, and to fundamentally shift narratives around poverty that have been weaponized against Black women for far too long. These false narratives have been used to consistently push the bar down on support systems for everyone. By centering and improving the situation for Black women, those hit with the double bind of racism and sexism, we are thereby raising the floor for us all

As Tillmon said of her work with the NWRO back in 1972, “Our issues are so important to all women—the right to a living wage for women’s work, the right to life itself.”

We are at a critical pivot point in our fight to earn the protections and policies needed to ensure that women’s lives reflect the same opportunities as men’s—from politics to the career ladder to family duties. The fact is, our economy does not function without women. And we must learn from the lessons of the past to create a long-overdue system that works for us all. 

Hear from the first mom in the series—Tia:

About and

Aisha Nyandoro is the chief executive officer of Springboard to Opportunities.
Katherine Spillar is the executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms., where she oversees editorial content and the Ms. in the Classroom program.