Build Back Better Is in Peril. Low-income Families Can’t Afford To Lose It

With the fate of Build Back Better in flux, economic justice organizations say a federal guaranteed income would help low-income families pay bills, reduce financial stress and set families up for long-term success. 

Guaranteed income involves regular payments directed to specific marginalized groups, as a way to address economic inequities caused by systemic racism and sexism. (Creative Commons)

Throughout 2020 and 2021, marginalized communities were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating economic inequities that already fell along race, gender and class divides. In particular, women faced record levels of unemployment as well as additional childcare and domestic burdens that limited their ability to earn an income. For people who were already struggling financially before the pandemic, lack of access to savings meant that losing a job could quickly become catastrophic. 

Aside from obvious dangers like not being able to pay bills, make rent or afford groceries, many other serious consequences of poverty are less visible. For example, 33 percent of Americans reported that they or a family member delayed needed healthcare due to costs in 2020, and others struggled to pay for school supplies and books necessary for their children’s education. 

Additionally, living paycheck-to-paycheck creates a tremendous amount of stress, which can lead to severe mental health consequences. Even before the pandemic, almost 40 percent of adults couldn’t afford a $400 emergency without going into debt. Then, in 2020, parents were forced to double the amount of time they spent on childcare and household tasks, taking time and energy away from their paid work. Sixty-eight percent of caregivers reported an increase in stress—but the mental and physical burdens weren’t shared equally. In heterosexual households, moms spend on average 15 hours a week more than dads on childcare and household tasks, which often prevents single moms and low-income moms from earning enough to pay their bills.

Even before the pandemic, almost 40 percent of adults couldn’t afford a $400 emergency without going into debt.

To help Americans recover from COVID, President Biden and congressional Democrats have taken several steps towards an economic system that helps those struggling the most. Biden’s American Rescue Plan, passed in March, includes a child tax credit (CTC) that provides parents $3,000 to $3,600 per child during 2021. For many low-income families, those payments have been life-changing.

“To get the child tax credit payments has been a huge help,” revealed one low-income mom, I’esha (last name withheld for anonymity). “If I could talk to President Biden, I would tell him that he should make the child tax credit permanent, because so many people are still unemployed and the pandemic is not over. And people need help even without a pandemic going on.”


Last month, the House of Representatives passed the Build Back Better Act (BBB), which would continue the child tax credit, invest in childcare and preschool, and provide four weeks of paid family leave. But just this week, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) split from the party and announced he plans to kill the bill in the Senate, going back on his previous agreements. He argues the child tax credit and paid family leave are too expensive—even though almost 70 percent of West Virginians support the BBB, and Manchin had no problem approving $780 billion in military spending this week.

As families hope Manchin will change his mind, or that Democratic leadership will find a different path to pass BBB policies, another revolutionary policy is just beginning to enter mainstream awareness: guaranteed income. Guaranteed income involves regular payments directed to specific marginalized groups, as a way to address economic inequities caused by systemic racism and sexism. Economic justice organizations like the Magnolia Mother’s Trust (MMT) argue a federal guaranteed income program would not just help low-income families pay their bills, but also reduce financial stress and set their families up for long-term success. 

MMT provides Black mothers living in extreme poverty $1,000 per month for a year—and the pilot program proves guaranteed income programs can have unexpected, far-reaching effects on low-income families and communities.

  • The percentage of MMT participants able to pay all their bills on time soared from 27 percent to 80 percent during the program.
  • After receiving guaranteed payments for a year, 85 percent of the moms had completed their high school education, compared to 63 percent at the beginning of the program.
  • Participating moms were empowered to be more choosy when finding new jobs, leading to higher wages and flexible schedules.

MMT mom Roneisha shared how her guaranteed income made her search for a job with a livable wage possible:

“I’ve worked jobs that are $11 or $12 an hour so it doesn’t make sense for me to then have a minimum wage job when I have the experience of higher-paid positions—even $9 is me humbling myself. I know my worth. The struggle with the job hunt makes the child tax credit payments and the guaranteed income even more important this year as I work to find a job that pays an even semi-livable wage.”


The program also showed that moms receiving guaranteed income were able to prioritize the long-term needs of their children.

  • The number of mothers who had health insurance coverage increased 25 percent during the program, and the number of mothers who had life insurance coverage increased from 50 percent to 87 percent.
  • 88 percent of moms were able to save money for emergencies, compared to 40 percent at the beginning of the year, and were 27 percent more likely to seek needed medical care than other moms not receiving guaranteed income.
  • MMT mothers were 20 percent more likely to have children performing at or above grade level than other mothers.

According to I’esha:

“Being a part of Magnolia Mother’s Trust has been so important in getting me through this year. Since I haven’t had an income since January, before the program started in April, I was living off my savings and that was stressful. Now that I have the guaranteed income money coming in, I don’t have to worry about whether I can afford bills this month or be concerned about affording household supplies. I would love to see a program like the Magnolia Mother’s Trust offered to more people, too. The government should want to pitch in a little more to help with programs like guaranteed income to help more families.”

For many of the moms receiving guaranteed income, the combination of MMT payments and the CTC enabled them to not only afford bare necessities, but also splurge on treats for their kids or trips they wouldn’t normally be able to experience. MMT guaranteed income recipients Tia, Sabrina, Chephirah and Tamika were all able to take their first vacations in years. Tia and Tamika went to visit family members they hadn’t seen in over 20 years, while Sabrina and Chephirah were able to take family vacations to celebrate birthdays.

For Sequaya, guaranteed income relieved her financial stress and also gave her the ability to create good memories with her daughter. She reflected:

“Aside from just being able to survive and buy toilet paper and pay my bills, it allowed me to—even at a very hard time—have moments of joy. Like, my daughter had never been to the beach. And so before the pandemic hit I had promised her I was going to take a weekend off to go. And then when I lost my job but had the money from the program, I was able to finally bring her to the beach. And she loved every moment of it. It’s a big relief to wake up and just know, ‘Okay, I’m not going to have to borrow money today because I have that extra help coming in.’ It’s very helpful.”

Especially around the holidays, when low-income families face increased financial and mental burdens to provide for their children, guaranteed income can help alleviate that anxiety. Many of the MMT moms commented on how the stability of guaranteed income reduced the stress they were dealing with before the program, improving their mental health and allowing them to focus on their families and working towards their long term goals.

Especially around the holidays, when low-income families face increased financial and mental burdens to provide for their children, guaranteed income can help alleviate that anxiety.

For Tia, guaranteed income payments meant she was able to cover her expenses without having to live with the stress of waiting for her paycheck each month.

“I just wasn’t so stressed out about everything, because it’s different when you have that little extra help. My rent went up, and that was okay, I could handle it. My car broke down, I was able to get it fixed right away. Things would happen, but I could take care of them. Before, I would’ve had to wait at least until the next pay period to take my car in. It was always just living paycheck to paycheck.

“So knowing I had the money to cover things was huge. Then there’s just knowing that if your kids get sick, it’s going to be okay. That if I needed to, I could take time off to care for my child without having to worry that my paycheck would be short. My baby got sick and I was able to say, ‘Okay, I have some money in the bank, it’s going to be fine.’ To not have that stress, it was wonderful. Won-der-ful.


Roneisha noticed a marked difference in her mental health while receiving guaranteed income.

“I suffer from depression and anxiety, but I’ve been doing okay handling it this year.

“What’s giving me hope right now is that I have this ability through the money from the trust to provide for my family in a hard time, because before I got that call that I was selected to be part of the program I was really struggling to keep on top of my bills and responsibilities. And now that I’m on this fixed income, it’s helped me get really good at managing my money and making sure I’m staying on top of everything and using this opportunity wisely. I’m hopeful that I can only go up from here.”

And Ebony was also able to practice self-care and prioritize her mental and physical health:

“And as hard as I work, it’s given me the ability to—maybe two days a month—I don’t start the car, I don’t get out of pajamas. Those are sometimes the best days of my life. I literally just relax. I’m like, ‘Ooh, let me take a nap.’ Fall asleep for a little bit, do something for a little bit, ‘Ooh, I need another nap.’ That’s my body saying: You’ve worked hard, you deserve a few naps.”

For the over 37 million Americans in poverty, the holidays are often a period of increased financial and mental strain. That stress affects low-income families in many ways, and is more likely to fall on the shoulders of single moms, who are more likely to be women of color.

As is clear from the experiences of the MMT moms, a permanent CTC and federal guaranteed income would enable low-income mothers to support their children’s education, invest in their family’s future and live their lives without the constant mental burdens of debt and living paycheck-to-paycheck. By offering unrestricted money and empowering moms to set their children up for success, a federal guaranteed income program would be transformational for all Americans in poverty, particularly low-income moms, disabled parents and women of color, who face systemic barriers to financial success.

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Katie Fleischer (she/they) is a Ms. editorial assistant working on the Front and Center series and Keeping Score.