A Federal Guaranteed Income Policy Could End Generational Cycles of Poverty

Children leave Wilkins Elementary school in in Jackson, Miss., on March 24, 2022. Students in majority-Black schools are on average 12 months behind their peers in majority-white schools, due in large part to COVID-19 disruptions. (Francois Picard / AFP via Getty Images)

After another school year impacted by the COVID pandemic, the long-term effects of educational disruptions are increasingly visible. Years of increased stress, financial burdens, and virtual schooling have affected children as well as adults: Test scores have fallen, rates of behavioral issues and absenteeism are up, and students are struggling to maintain their mental health and social skills. 

These effects manifest disproportionately in Black and brown families. While students in majority-white schools are starting to recover to pre-pandemic success rates, students in majority-Black schools remain five months behind pre-pandemic math and reading levels—leaving them a full 12 months behind their peers in majority-white schools.

This widening education gap is a devastating sign that many Black children will continue to be marginalized by structural racism and classism throughout their lives. Women of color, particularly Black women, already disproportionately face systemic barriers in higher education and attaining high-paying jobs. The increased learning gap will only broaden those disparities. 

For low-income families, this education gap is particularly dire. After the expanded child tax credit (CTC) expired in January, the childhood poverty rate rose from 12 percent to 17 percent—and soared to over 23 percent for Latino children and 25 percent for Black children.

Low-income parents across the country are now struggling to provide for their families and support their children’s education. For example, essential worker Johnnie was forced to leave her job during the pandemic to care for her daughter, highlighting some of the unique challenges low-income working moms face:

“During the pandemic, it was really hard for me because it was mandatory for me to go to work, but then my daughter was home from school and I didn’t have anyone to be there to help her. I ended up leaving my job because it was not safe and my daughter was not able to continue with school without my help. I didn’t have any options, so I had to quit my job to help my baby. I want her to have an education and I couldn’t let her fall behind.”

And regardless of the pandemic, many employers devalue and ignore challenges employed mothers face. Guaranteed income recipient Sequaya was forced to choose between her job and her daughter’s safety:

“When school started back up this fall, I had to leave the warehouse job because there was no one to help my daughter get to and from her own school. They wanted me to work 12-hour shifts, and there’s just no way to do that when you have a little kid who needs to get on and off the bus around a normal school day. I tried to get my manager to help me work around it, but he wouldn’t budge. I had to be at work at 5 a.m. and her bus doesn’t come until 7 a.m., and you know what he said? He said to just leave her outside and let her wait. He told me that twice. He said I had to make a decision, and so I did. I left. Motherhood comes first. But that experience hurt, even though I know I did the right thing and walked away with a smile.”

Financial Support for Black Women and Their Families

Both Johnnie and Sequaya were forced to make difficult decisions to prevent their children from falling behind in school. But most low-income families don’t have that option. As Magnolia Mother’s Trust (MMT) guaranteed income recipients, Johnnie and Sequaya had the financial ability to leave their jobs and support their children’s education. 

I had to be at work at 5 a.m. and her bus doesn’t come until 7 a.m., and you know what he said? He said to just leave her outside and let her wait.

Sequaya, mother and essential worker
Sequaya (left) and Johnnie (right) are participants in the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which gives recipients a guaranteed income of $1,000 per month for 12 months. Guaranteed income gave them the financial ability to leave their jobs and support their children’s education. (Art by Brandi Phipps)

Guaranteed income is a transformational economic justice policy that involves providing monthly payments to specific marginalized groups. Based in Jackson, Miss., MMT provides Black mothers living in extreme poverty $1,000 per month for a year. Even just a year of receiving consistent and unrestricted payments enables the recipients to escape cycles of debt and poverty and prioritize the long-term needs of their children

The success of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which is now in its fourth cohort, demonstrates guaranteed income’s far-reaching effects on low-income families and communities.

After one year of receiving monthly payments:

  • 85 percent of the moms had completed their high school education, compared to 63 percent at the beginning of the program.
  • Recipients were 20 percent more likely to have children performing at or above grade level than other low-income mothers.
  • 83 percent were able to pay all their bills without additional support, compared to just 27 percent before receiving guaranteed income.

For many struggling families, access to education is a major expense. Even public schools often have hidden costs for extracurriculars and advanced learning opportunities, and schools in low-income, predominately Black and brown areas are much more likely to be underfunded, understaffed and overpoliced.

Guaranteed income is one way to reduce some of the structural barriers low-income children face. Unrestricted payments allow can open up a wide range of opportunities. Once they had a stable source of income, MMT moms were able to prioritize education—both their children’s and their own. Sabrina could transfer her son to a school designed to help with his dyslexia, and Sherika no longer had to painstakingly save up for school supplies.

Guaranteed income became a lifeline for recipients like Annette, a mother of two studying elementary education and hopes to one day own her own day care center.

“If I were able to sit down with our country’s leaders, I would tell them how important a program like the trust is. It helps low-income women like myself better ourselves,” she wrote. “The money has helped me in pursuing a better future for me and my kids and allows me to do things that I wasn’t really able to before—like going back to school. I know if I finish school I will be a better person, and I’ll be a better person for my kids.”

Education and Wage Gaps Persist for Black Women

Unfortunately, graduating is not always enough to guarantee financial success later in life. Black students, especially Black women, are still more likely to face discrimination in higher education, have student loan debt and earn less than their white male coworkers. U.S. racial and gender wealth gaps were further exacerbated by the pandemic. 

However, researchers have found that education gaps are tightly correlated with low-income areas in a self-sustaining cycle, with schools and children both lacking the resources they need to achieve academically.

A federal guaranteed income program would mitigate these economic barriers caused by systemic racism and sexism, and lift up entire communities. Recipients would have less financial stress, more control over where they live and work, and more money for tuition, tutors and school supplies. Monthly unrestricted payments would empower low-income Black moms to prioritize education and prepare their children for long-term success. As the pandemic continues to widen educational disparities, a federal investment in low-income families would reduce education gaps across the country.

Unrestricted guaranteed income payments do more than just help families pay the bills; the stability they provide reverberates to the future. For single mom Chephirah, one year of guaranteed income broke decades of generational cycles of poverty.

“[Guaranteed income] has helped me cover my monthly bills, and pay for things like my daughter’s school books,” she said. “My hope for her right now is to be the first one in our family to graduate from high school—my brothers and I all left school early. I want her to have a real high school diploma, not a GED. I want her to go to college, and to just know that whatever she wants to strive for, I’m gonna be right there behind her to support her 100 percent.

“You know, where I’m from, you just don’t have that much hope. So seeing my daughter succeed and be motivated really inspires me.”

Explore the stories of other guaranteed income recipients in the Magnolia Mother’s Trust. In Front and Center, these mothers speak on their struggles, their children, their work, their relationships, and their dreams for the future, and how a federal guaranteed income program could change their lives.


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