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When 100 women in Jackson, Mississippi, were told in March 2020 that they had been chosen to be part of a year-long guaranteed income program, they couldn’t have known that the year would be harder than most. The pandemic was only just beginning, but all of them were already dealing with everyday crises — navigating car trouble, job loss and debt on low wages, with families to feed and bills to pay.
When those challenges were compounded by the pandemic, they had something to fall back on: $1,000 a month, for 12 months. They made up the second cohort of a program called The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which has been giving Black mothers who live in subsidized housing in Jackson $12,000 a year to spend how they wish — no strings attached — since 2018.
The Magnolia Mother’s Trust initiative builds off a simple idea: that cash is the most efficient and most effective way to help people in need. It’s an old concept, but one that got legs during the pandemic, partly because of how effective cash payments were at buoying low-income Americans over the last two years.
This week’s episode of The Pay Check podcast dives into how national programs like stimulus checks, the child tax credit and bigger unemployment benefits helped some Americans weather the early pandemic months, and fended off the worst of the economic crisis that lockdowns, infection and uncertainty threatened to create. They’re also credited with bolstering wealth for some of the least advantaged Americans during a time when many expected inequality to get worse.
Those government programs have lapsed, and political momentum for renewing them has stalled. But across the US, dozens of local guaranteed income pilot programs like the Magnolia Mother’s Trust continue. Here’s what the cash meant to three mothers in Jackson.
In March 2020, Djunaita Johnson had two kids, one job, and a “household full of bills.” Those bills — rent, renters’ insurance, car insurance, and groceries, “oh my goodness, groceries, so high” — had started to outweigh her $65-a-day income as a substitute teacher for a local middle school. Then, while she, her students, and her kids were home for spring break, she heard on the news that school would be out for a little longer than expected. She wondered how long it would be. “I didn't wanna exhaust all my funds that I just got,” she said.
By April, Johnson had learned that her district didn’t plan to resume in-person classes until the next school year. But at that point, she had already gotten the first of a dozen $1,000 payments, and had qualified for enhanced unemployment insurance. She was in a “calm state” for the first time in years. “What's so amazing is that with that income and the unemployment income, I made almost $30,000 at the end of last year,” she said. “I know 30 might not seem like it's a lot for some families, but I’m a manager. I know how to manage money.”
So manage she did, putting much of the extra money she was making towards her various bills, and squirreling away the rest. “I always was prepared and was always saving,” she said. “Because I knew that it wasn't a program that was gonna last always, even though we might have wanted it to.”
Another curveball came in January 2021, when her school asked her to come back to the classroom. She was terrified. So she made a decision that in another year might have been impossible: she stayed home rather than risk her health. “I had a nice little amount of money saved up where I didn't have to – I had everything figured out,” she said. “I was like, okay, I can stay here for this amount of time.”
The $1,000 payments stopped in February. By August, she returned to school, and stayed even as mask requirements dropped. But remnants of her time as a Magnolia Mother remain: There’s the $13,000 she saved, and the motivation it gave her to make that same income on her own. She switched school districts, and now makes $10 an hour. Johnson loves the students, but she’s looking for a new job where she can make even more.
“I at least need to make no lower than $15 an hour,” she said. “I’m definitely gonna find another job cause I just can’t live no more like this. This is hard.”
The day Tamika Calhoun told her five kids that she would soon be getting $1,000 a month from the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, “it kind of blew their minds.” She had been rejected the year before, and had a rough 2019 of job loss and car trouble, so they were all ecstatic when the call came in March 2020. Calhoun had also just gotten a new job she could do from home, answering calls for Apple for about $14 an hour.
First on her mind were the big expenses the funds could cover, like getting a new car for more reliable transportation.
Dreams also swirled through her mind of savings, new clothes and an allowance for the kids — and maybe even a small vacation. But the pandemic, which had only just begun, reordered priorities. The kids needed computers to sign into remote school, and desks to make their days more structured.
“I was just trying to prepare for: What if this is gonna be permanent?” she said. But she knew that even if the pandemic turned out to be long-lasting, the payments wouldn’t be. So after covering the basics — paying off her new truck, and getting monthly groceries for her full house — she focused on saving half.
When Calhoun thinks about how the program changed her life, it’s the way that $6,000 in extra savings allowed her to let go of a list of worries. When her car needed to be fixed, she wasn’t stressed about affording everything else that month. When she moved out of subsidized housing, she didn’t have to panic about using a whole paycheck for the first month’s rent and a deposit on a new house. When she and her family finally did go on that vacation, they could actually have fun.
This year, intent on sustaining the quality of life she had with a guaranteed income, Calhoun started a new career as a financial counselor for aspiring homeowners. It’s a job she loves, but without the extra cash from Magnolia Mother’s, saving has been harder, adding to her conviction that something national and lasting is necessary.
“I don't think anyone wants it just to be their only income, but to supplement,” she said. “Especially with inflation, it would be just what a lot of families need.”
When a letter advertising the Magnolia Mother’s Trust showed up at her apartment in early 2021, Sherika Washington had been in and out of the hospital for months. Since finding out she was pregnant with her third child, the nausea and vomiting had been relentless. Her weight had dropped to 81 pounds, and her doctor told her she was at risk of having a stroke. “My face had started to sink in,” she said. “When I went to the hospital, they told me it was by the grace of God that my sister had got me there in time.”
After she gave birth to her daughter, the complications continued, meaning she couldn’t go back to work as a nurse’s assistant, or stand up long enough to style hair like she used to do on the side. Even as the baby grew, daycare didn’t feel like an option, with Covid cases still circulating in Jackson.
Income was close to non-existent and bills were mounting. Then she found out she had been chosen for the Magnolia Mother’s program, and suddenly she had a safety net: In April 2021, she started getting $1,000 a month. She bought herself a car for $1,700, and had enough to keep the tank full; her son got a scooter. Other portions went to paying off rent multiple months at a time, and to stocking up on household supplies. “I would buy big boxes of diapers,” she said. “It had got to the point where my apartment looked like a hoarder house.”
The cash took stress off of Washington when times were toughest, she says. And now, even after the last of the payments stopped coming this March, things are starting to look up. Washington started applying for jobs, and got one, as a patient care assistant. “Can you believe it? Oh my goodness, I went to two interviews with my daughter on my hip!” she said. She still can’t lift anything too heavy because of an umbilical hernia during birth, so will be doing housekeeping instead of the nursing work she’s used to. But it’s “better than nothing,” she said.
“I love elderly people. I love working in nursing homes. I love working in hospitals. I love working with children,” she said. “It’s my passion, you know, so long as I'm still able to do that and I can walk up and down the hall and say ‘Hey Miss Joelle,’ or whoever, I'm okay with that.”
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