Rest, Dream, & Build: The Fight for Guaranteed Income in DC
“The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1967. The last book he published before he was assassinated laid out the case for guaranteed income, a vision that the Mother’s Outreach Network (MON) continues to make a reality here in Washington, DC, today through the work of the DC Guaranteed Income Coalition.
This November 17th, the Coalition celebrates its second anniversary. Though MON was founded in 2010 to build the power of parents and achieve economic security for families — and especially for Black mothers who are either formerly incarcerated or who have children in the child welfare system — it was during the pandemic that Melody Webb, Executive Director of MON, became interested in furthering the emergency pandemic relief programs that the government had started through exploring guaranteed income policy.
“The time seemed ripe because suddenly many Americans and policy makers at all levels woke up to the long-standing need for deeper systemic solutions. That was the genesis,” Melody shared with the Catalogue in a recent interview. “Because there were so many efforts underway, like Thrive East of the River, including programs growing up across the country and abroad, it just made common sense.”
Since the Coalition was conceived in 2020, their push for the city’s first pot of guaranteed income public funding helped result in a one-time $1.5M appropriation for guaranteed income pilots here in DC. This represents a step towards an economically just future for a wide range of DC communities who are excluded from the current social safety net. But there is still so much more to be done.
What is guaranteed income?
So, what is guaranteed income? As the Guaranteed Income Community of Practice defines, it is “a regular cash payment accessible to members of a community, with no strings attached and no work requirements.” According to the Economic Security Project, “nearly half of all households don’t even have $400 in cash on hand to deal with an emergency or unexpected bill.” Instead, due to austerity politics and systemic racism, it is now nearly impossible for people “to build a strong economic foundation for themselves and their families.” Many of us are actually familiar with such direct cash payments from the federal government — namely, the stimulus payments that were provided during the height of the pandemic.
“Cash can make all the difference for you,” said Hanh Le, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at if, A Foundation for Radical Possibility, a Coalition member. “That’s one of the things we talk about with our (Let’s GO DMV! guaranteed income pilot for hospitality workers). When has cash made a difference in your life? Whether it’s $5, $500, or $5,000, everyone has a story about the impact extra cash can make. We can all relate to that.”
In contrast to a Universal Basic Income, which would give everyone identical cash payments, guaranteed income is a targeted measure that provides money on a regular basis to lower-income individuals regardless of their age, health, or employment status — and is specifically meant to lift them above a minimum income floor. In the 1960s, Black mother and economic justice advocate Johnnie Tillmon fought for Guaranteed Adequate Income through the National Welfare Rights Organization to dismantle conditions keeping “all women on their knees.”
“(Tillmon) saw Guaranteed Adequate Income as a way to break down the categories we use to give people cash based on who they are,” Melody echoed. “She held a vision to address the needs of those living below an income floor without regard to their identities — whether they’re a parent, or a mom of a young enough child to qualify for benefits.”
15% of DC residents live below the federal poverty line. Though this is only one measure of economic security, in 2022, the federal poverty line is approximately $13,000 for a one-person household. “For me, that’s shameful,” said Melody. “In this nation of such wealth there’s no reason anyone should live below this already meager federal poverty line. The biggest goal is to have us all work together, rise up, and demand city leaders put in place a guaranteed income and fixes to existing safety net programs to provide people with higher incomes without cutting their Medicaid and disability insurance.”
Why should you join the fight for guaranteed income?
As part of the Coalition’s push to educate and draw support from the broader DC community, Coalition members and volunteers canvass different parts of the city to talk about guaranteed income. Often, in conversations about guaranteed income, harmful narratives pop up around what people who are lower- or no-income, or working people, do when they get extra cash.
“Some of us judge our neighbors who don’t have extra money when they receive it and spend it on ensuring they can rest and take their kids to the beach for the first time,” Melody explained. A core value underlying guaranteed income is self-determination and trusting that people make the best choices for themselves, their families, and their communities.
“We believe people will take care of their basic needs,” Melody stated. “Who are we to determine what those needs are? If we give people cash, they deserve the agency to determine how to use their money.” Reports on other pilot programs show that when you give people money, they spend it on things like healthcare or tutoring their kids or traveling back and forth from work.
But we need to move beyond this framing, too. As Hanh shared, people should be able to spend their money to “rest, dream and build power, whatever they want to build for their families and communities.” Guaranteed income can lead to the systems change we need for people to move out of poverty.
Moreover, “there’s a moral force behind guaranteed income that’s powered by the racial equity outcomes that it has the potential to achieve,” Melody emphasized. “We think this is the way we should lead — with Black and Brown people at the forefront of our cause.” This includes people like Vee Tucker, the life-long activist and worker-leader who innovated the concept of the Let’s GO DMV! pilot.
“(Vee) came to if with the vision for Let’s GO DMV! for hospitality workers who are un- and under-employed because of COVID-19,” Hanh elaborated. “She and her fellow hospitality workers have been out there with the Coalition canvassing, testifying, and delivering petitions to Mayor Bowser. It’s pretty amazing, the power they have.” Most importantly and inspirationally, “None of us alone, including our institutions, can be making the changes we hope to make.”
While the Coalition celebrates change happening in DC, such as publicly-funded pilots, their ultimate goal is greater policy change for a permanent, government-supported guaranteed income and a more effective public benefits system. Join if, Diverse City Fund, Meyer Foundation, and the Coalition’s other supporters in getting engaged by signing/sharing their petition, volunteering, or offering your financial support! You can learn more about the Coalition at their virtual 2nd anniversary celebration on November 17, by joining their monthly working group meetings, and by visiting their website.