Moms to receive unrestricted cash in MCF project

03/24/2021

A group of moms in Marin will receive $1,000 a month for two years to demonstrate the impact of a universal basic income. Adding to a growing body of research that shows that providing an income floor results in dramatic improvements to quality of life, the Marin Community Foundation will give cash, with no restrictions on how it is spent, to 125 randomly selected residents.

“The evidence is clear that it’s a useful way of supporting moms and families to achieve greater self-sufficiency and independence,” said Jonathan Logan, the foundation’s vice president of community engagement. “We are extremely excited about what we will learn from this process, and the ways we’ll be able to support moms to achieve their goals.”

The project, which will cost over $3 million and is set to begin later this spring, will also supply participants with money for workforce training and education. The program will be administered by the Family Independence Initiative, an Oakland-based nonprofit that will select the recipients and disburse the cash. The initiative will also connect participants through a social media platform called UpTogether, so moms can talk to other moms, sharing their goals and resources.

Guaranteed income programs have shown great success in boosting financial stability, and all of the good things that come along with it. In Stockton, 125 residents were given $500 a month for two years starting in 2019. Recipients found full-time jobs, enrolled in school and spent more time with family. They reported less fatigue and pain, and their mental health improved. One man finally had his car repaired, and another stopped selling drugs. One woman left a bad marriage that she didn’t previously have the means to leave. “It’s like being able to breathe,” another woman said.

In Jackson, Miss., the Magnolia Mother’s Trust provided 110 low-income, African American mothers with $1,000 cash per month for a year. Like in Stockton, the guaranteed income created new opportunities for self-determination, goal-setting and risk-taking. Compared to a control group, these mothers were 40 percent less likely to have debt, 20 percent more likely to have children performing at grade level and 27 percent more likely to seek medical help for an illness. 

The idea of supporting mothers in Marin arose from a report M.C.F. conducted in 2019, called the Book of Mom, which is based on intimate interviews with 93 mothers from Marin City, the Canal, Novato and West Marin. The inquiry was focused on one question: How might we understand the journey of Marin mothers moving toward self-sufficiency, and then design ways to help more of them successfully make this journey, while being fulfilled along the way? Understanding this group’s challenges and designing solutions to meet their needs could result in multi-generational and community impacts, the report says.

Over half of the interviewees identified as Latina, slightly less than a quarter identified as African American and the rest identified as “mixed race or prefer not to answer.” Only four women were Caucasian. The majority of interviewees earned less than $45,000, and 58 preferred to speak in Spanish. The interviews were conducted in homes and familiar environments and were supplemented by conversations with M.C.F. grantees and experts on innovation, poverty and women’s upward mobility.

The challenges these moms face, and their resiliency while doing so, was both painful and inspiring for the team that interviewed them. They found that moms are wholly focused on creating a solid foundation for their children—they are the center of her world. Moms are savvy multi-taskers, and they are strong and resilient. They have goals, and they are committed to achieving them. But they are exhausted, with virtually no time to attend to their own mental, physical and spiritual needs as everyone else’s needs are put first.

“The journey of a mom striving for self-sufficiency in Marin is not linear. And it’s not easy. It is fraught with frustrating challenges and daunting hurdles—only some over which she has any control,” the report states. “Is the journey rigged? The facts, and the moms we spoke with, say ‘yes.’ But they’re damned if they’re not going to succeed against the odds.”

Mothers must break intergenerational cycles at home in the form of codependency, trauma, domestic violence, drug addiction and legal problems. On a larger scale, they face societal prejudices and racism. “The system,” as they call the array of programs and services that they access for support, is fraught with weaknesses. When the system fails, moms create informal support within family, communities and churches to fill the void around childcare, housing, food and transportation.

Mothers said they don’t want to be in the system, but in a county where a family of four earning less than $117,400 is considered low income, they have little choice. Navigating the different qualifications and applications is a daily hustle for many. In West Marin, the struggles are exacerbated because many agencies are centered over the hill, and poor internet and cell coverage makes accessing programs online more difficult. 

Low-income mothers also face an eligibility cliff: If they land a job and start earning more money, they may earn more than what qualifies for public benefits but not enough to meet their basic needs. The gap between surviving on a low-to-moderate income without assistance and achieving financial self-sufficiency is significant, and the decision to work more hours or take a job is carefully weighed. “Now that I have a job, I feel like I’m in more of a deficit than when I was on aid,” one mom said. 

A study by Feeding America found that about 27,000 Marin residents are food insecure, but only half of these individuals qualify for food assistance programs based on income. 

To counter this cliff, the Family Independence Initiative will screen mothers for their benefits and give them a clear understanding of how they will be impacted by making an extra $12,000 a year. If an unforeseen raise causes them to lose benefits, the program will have money set aside to allow participants to recover the loss. Marin County approved a contribution of $400,000 on Tuesday. 

Mothers of color also face racism in every aspect of their lives. Racism affects their job opportunities and how their children are treated in school. It influences how they think about themselves and their immediate community, and it generates stress. Whether it’s at a store, a clinic, school or work, many moms said they experience harsh treatment and feel judged by white people. For those who don’t speak English, the challenges are compounded. 

“On the surface, Marin presents itself as a progressive, liberal community but scratch that surface and you’ll find physically, economically, and socially segregated schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces. As a result, people of color in Marin are often ‘invisible’. When they are ‘seen,’ they are treated differently, especially lately,” the Book of Mom says. “The pervasive hum of racism in the county makes it hard for moms of color to get beyond survival mode and to trust that their children will be safe.”