‘It’s just a steppingstone’: Two programs try cash to alleviate poverty

Guaranteed income program is ongoing in Atlanta and other parts of Georgia

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

In 2015, Nora Williams escaped the home that was making her sick.

The walls of her Atlanta apartment were lined with asbestos and mold, irritating her skin and making it nearly impossible to breathe. At the advice of her doctors, Williams left. She lived in hotel rooms and with various family members before ultimately moving in with her oldest daughter in College Park.

But Williams’ chronic illness from living in an infested home meant she was unable to work. Then, this September, Williams had a breakthrough: she qualified for a program that would give her cash, with virtually no strings attached.

“This is such a miracle for me, and my kids,” said Williams.

Williams is part of a pilot program for hundreds of Black women in Georgia that is looking for answers to a simple question – what happens when a person living in poverty is suddenly gifted more than $20,000 over two years? The controversial concept, known as guaranteed income, has gained rapid momentum across the United States. Some programs are funded through donations, while others rely on government money.

Supporters hope these pilots can eventually be expanded at the federal level and become as commonplace as other safety net programs, like food stamps. They argue that people who are living in poverty know what they need to spend money on and that a cash boost could lift them out of this cycle. Opponents say this strategy could disincentivize work and that these programs have few restrictions to prevent abuse.

There are two pilots in Georgia alone: “In Her Hands,” which is specifically for Black women, and another pilot that is solely within the city of Atlanta. In all, there are now approximately 100 pilots that are giving cash out to participants in all corners of the country.

What’s atypical of the “In Her Hands” pilot is that participants come from a mix of urban, suburban and rural areas across the state. The pilot gives participants more than $20,000 spread out over the span of two years. Some women receive $4,300 upfront and $700 in monthly payments, while the remaining women are given $850 a month throughout the program.

Williams, who has been hospitalized several times from her years of living in an infested home, said that leaving that apartment saved her life.

“My lungs were so filled with congestion, the only way I could describe it is like liquid concrete. That’s how it felt when I tried to breathe,” she said. “I felt like I wasn’t going to make it.”

Her application for disability benefits was denied, but she is unable to work while she is still recovering from the fallout of living in the apartment. For example, Williams says she had three surgeries just in April.

Since she’s started receiving payments, Williams says she now can buy better quality food and has begun saving for her own home.

“It’s just a steppingstone,” she said. “You start here, and you build and build and build.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Guaranteed income is not a new concept. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for it in the 1960s, and there were pilot experiments in the United States and in Canada in the 1970s. The concept further punctured the liberal political discourse in the most recent presidential election, when former Democratic candidate Andrew Yang made it the key part of his platform.

In its purest form, what’s referred to as “universal basic income” is meant to give residents a certain amount of cash, regardless of their income level. For example, Alaska has had its own form of it for many years. The program gives all residents money from oil industry profits. But the pilots in Georgia are focused on some of the state’s poorest residents.

The idea is not without controversy. A narrow majority of U.S. adults, or 54%, said in a nonpartisan Pew Research survey that they would oppose the federal government providing a guaranteed income of about $1,000 per month for all adult citizens. The study, which was released in 2020, found that 45% of respondents favored it. Young people and Democrats generally supported guaranteed income, while older adults and Republicans broadly opposed it.

One hotly debated point is how to fund a guaranteed income program. The “In Her Hands” program is funded through private donations, from both foundations and individual donors.

By contrast, the pilot program in Atlanta is largely funded by the city. About $2 million is from the administration of former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and the remaining $500,000 is from the Mayors for Guaranteed Income coalition. In all, about 300 people are participating.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

GiveDirectly is a nonprofit organization that is working on the “In Her Hands” pilot. The Georgia Resilience and Opportunity Fund, a local nonprofit, partnered with GiveDirectly to launch the pilot from the Old Fourth Ward in Atlanta and expand to other parts of the state, including three counties in southwest Georgia – Terrell, Clay and Randolph counties – as well as in College Park.

“It’s really sobering to see the level of need in these communities,” said Sarah Moran, the U.S. director at GiveDirectly who oversees several guaranteed income programs, including this Georgia pilot.

The program is still in the early stages, and 654 women across all three locations started receiving payments this year. What’s been most enlightening, Moran said, is the varying reasons that the women need this money. Women in the Old Fourth Ward, for example, say that finding affordable childcare is their biggest struggle. Whereas in southwest Georgia, the barriers are access to transportation and hospitals.

For Williams, this program could be the ticket to securing an apartment. Williams has also started making her own products that she intends to sell and is hopeful that this will help her reach a more stable life.

“I don’t want to just take money,” she said. “I’m so grateful, because I need it, but I don’t just want to take it. I want to be able to give back.”