Low-Income Parents and Caregivers Deserve a Federal Guaranteed Income Program

Too many U.S. families lack access to childcare, transportation, safe housing and nutritious food. We need federal programs that address these issues, while avoiding unnecessary and stigmatizing restrictions.

A child and her mother at a drive-through food bank. (Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

With social safety net programs constantly on Congress’ chopping block, it’s not enough to just protect those programs. U.S. lawmakers need to aim for new bold policies like guaranteed income (GI) that support marginalized families, and respect and uplift the value of caretaking.

Across the U.S., caregivers—especially moms—are being left behind by policies that don’t value the work they do every day. Families are facing systemic problems like lack of access to childcare, transportation, safe housing and nutritious food. Federal programs that address these issues without unnecessary and stigmatizing restrictions would enable parents, friends and other caregivers to provide higher-quality care and set their children up for success.

Traditional benefits programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid and other state and federal assistance programs keep millions out of poverty. But many of the lowest-income states are refusing to provide these much-needed programs. Even when states do agree, the programs don’t always ensure that everyone has the resources they need. The U.S. needs a federal guaranteed income policy that fully values and supports low-income families.

Guaranteed income involves monthly cash payments to specifically targeted low-income marginalized communities, with no restrictions or strings attached. It serves as an income floor that, along with other benefits like Medicaid and SNAP, ensures that recipients are able to meet their basic needs. Under a strong federal guaranteed income policy, nobody would live in poverty.

Existing welfare programs often come with work and income requirements, the result of sexist, racist and classist public policies dating back to slavery. Work requirements are based on the assumption that people experiencing poverty deserve to suffer. Too often, policymakers imply that marginalized groups simply “don’t want to work” and are a drain on taxpayer resources. Work requirements don’t lead to greater employment; instead they increase burdens on already struggling families and exacerbate existing racial and gendered poverty rates, data shows.

As low-income mom Sequaya explained in Ms.:

“There’s so much paperwork with these welfare programs. Every six months, you have to report this, sign this, recertify this. And what lawmakers and politicians don’t know is when you all have us doing all this extra paperwork for SNAP benefits, we’re just worried about eating. Politicians could be focusing on so much more than worrying about whether or not someone’s being lazy.”

A common narrative is that low-income parents should be obligated to work multiple jobs, sacrificing their health and time with their families, dedicating every cent to living expenses to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Under this perspective, low-income families don’t deserve to enjoy life with their family, and aren’t entitled to the dignity of making their own financial decisions.

Mom of two Kimberly questioned:

“I would like to ask the politicians who are making the laws around SNAP benefits and similar aid if these programs are really for the people. It doesn’t seem as if they are—because the people are still suffering. The people are still hungry. You need to raise the cap on these programs, because even though we’re working and making money, it’s still not enough. We are single moms. We have so many responsibilities, and our kids are going without. So how can we ever save? How can we ever do better for ourselves?”

These false narratives are driving conservative members of Congress to call for severe cuts to SNAP and other benefits programs. They also reveal how social safety net programs are created by and exist at the whims of policymakers who don’t truly understand and have never experienced poverty. If policies were based on lived experience, it would open up new ways to support intersectional identities and address systemic issues.

A Path Forward: Guaranteed Income

Local GI programs like Springboard to Opportunities’ Magnolia Mother’s Trust (MMT), which provides low-income Black mothers in Jackson, Miss., with $1,000 a month for 12 months, have proved the impact GI can have. MMT is the longest-running program in the country, serving over 400 moms.

Year after year at MMT, the unrestricted payments empower moms to invest in their families and themselves, by enabling them to pay for basic living expenses like food, transportation and housing. Because guaranteed income programs don’t include work requirements or restrictions on how the money can be spent, they provide increased stability for low-income families. Unrestricted funds provide opportunities for women to go back to school, start new businesses and support their children’s dreams.

For MMT mom Porscha, the unrestricted payments help her fill in the holes left by SNAP. “I receive $92 a month in SNAP benefits, which is not nearly enough to cover my grocery bill for the month. And that’s why I’m so grateful for MMT—I can go spend cash on some groceries, and my baby and I are still good. Cash is more helpful than SNAP because I can buy groceries with cash, but I can’t pay bills with SNAP,” she shared.

Eliminating work requirements also means that guaranteed income fully values the work of caregivers. Too often, single moms, grandparents, disabled parents and others with dependents struggle to find childcare and work full time. When benefits programs have strict work requirements, it leaves people vulnerable to abusive workplaces, and makes it harder for people without transportation or childcare to receive the benefits they deserve. Some may also feel pressured into accepting minimum wage jobs that aren’t enough to support their families.

Low-income Black moms are disproportionately affected by unemployment, wage gaps and unpaid childcare and domestic labor. They often struggle to find work that fulfills benefits requirements, and their time at home is not respected or taken into account. For example, Roneisha struggled to find jobs that paid more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour—not nearly enough to support her three kids.

Guaranteed income provides unrestricted payments regardless of work status, meaning that caregivers are compensated for their unpaid labor that is too often devalued by government policies. To be clear, the vast majority of guaranteed income recipients do continue to work outside the home.

Guaranteed income recipient Kieria explained:

“I’m not going to quit my job because I’m receiving this money. It’s given me a boost toward reaching my goals a little quicker than I would be able to without receiving them. MMT is helping families reach goals, and allowing us to provide for our families better than we were before.”

Mom of two Michelle agreed:

“The politicians who believe programs like MMT discourage people from working are wrong. That money is an incentive. It allows us to take care of things that we weren’t able to get on a day-to-day basis before. Benefits programs like SNAP and TANF aren’t thinking about our other expenses: car payments, car insurance, and all the other things you need.”

But having the safety net of an income floor means GI recipients don’t have to suffer through two shifts a day on top of taking care of their kids. They aren’t pressured into taking jobs with abusive bosses or low pay. Instead, they can make the financial decisions that are right for their family—whether that’s changing careers, getting a degree or looking for a better job without stress.

Next Steps Towards Economic Justice

Guaranteed income isn’t just an abstract political concept—it could dramatically change the lives of millions of Americans. Policies have the biggest impact when they’re based on the experiences of those most affected. Low-income moms know what they need to lift their family out of poverty, and until policymakers listen to those with lived experience, the stigmatizing and paternalistic issues with assistance programs will remain.

Some politicians do understand the importance of prioritizing low-income families. In the recent fiscal year 2024 funding bills, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) added $1 billion in new funding for childcare for low-income families. Since 2015, childcare and Head Start funding has increased by 250 percent; over $6 billion. Lawmakers in Flint, Michigan have found a creative way to use TANF funding for guaranteed income payments for pregnant people and infants. But other policymakers are continuing to call for cuts to assistance programs like SNAP. Last year, the work requirement age for SNAP was expanded to include everyone aged 18 to 55. But that isn’t enough for House Republicans, who are now promoting a farm bill that includes a $30 billion cut over the next decade to the program that so many Americans rely on.

With benefits programs at constant risk, it’s time for policymakers to listen to the communities their bills impact most, by protecting existing programs and working towards a federal guaranteed income program to reduce poverty, support marginalized families and address the systemic issues and oppressive policies they face everyday.

Up Next:

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