Jenna Stanwood is a 2L at American University Washington College of Law. She graduated from McGill University in 2016 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and International Development. Before law school, Jenna worked on Capitol Hill for members of both the House and Senate.

In 2022, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a pilot program to provide direct cash payments to 132 new and expectant mothers.[1] The program was facilitated by a coalition of local nonprofits, and it attracted 1,553 applications in three weeks.[2] Two years on, the mothers who were selected for the pilot program have reported positive outcomes for themselves and their children, having used the funds to establish savings accounts, catch up on bills, pay down debt, and even purchase cars.[3] Other initiatives in D.C. have targeted direct payments to Black mothers who were recently referred to social services, and to families living below the poverty line[4].

Guaranteed income programs are not a novel D.C. invention. Andrew Yang’s 2016 presidential campaign brought the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI) into household conversations.[5] Before Yang, UBI had been discussed as early as the writings of Thomas Payne, was a feature of conversations around the Civil Rights Movement, and was even proposed by President Nixon.[6] A national UBI would consist of regular periodic payments in cash to all citizens regardless of income or need level.[7]

More recently, the idea of Guaranteed Income programs, which provide cash payments to applicants who meet certain criteria, has been tested across the country and has grown in popularity. Programs have been tested for young people, families living below the poverty line, and pregnant people.[8] Interest in these programs has grown and even reached Capitol Hill, where the Guaranteed Income Pilot Program Act was introduced in the House in September 2023.[9] This bill, which currently has 18 cosponsors, would create a federal pilot program, but has not progressed since its introduction.[10]

A program in California that provided $500 a month for two years to 125 people reported that those receiving payments were twice as likely to find full time employment.[11] Additionally, they experienced a 10% increase in paying off their debts while spending less than 1% of the payments were on tobacco or alcohol.[12] Studies have shown that these programs have helped improve health, made securing child care easier, and helped many gain financial security.[13] A program in DC offering lump payments to families in need during the COVID-19 pandemic found that recipients not only used the funds to pay their housing and essential bills, but some also reinvested it into the community or created new economic opportunities for themselves.[14]

However, guaranteed income programs are not without their drawbacks. Most notably, they do not seem to be very popular among voters.[15] This opposition most likely goes beyond the usual opposition to new welfare programs and might reflect anxiety among some that attempts to establish UBI risk undermining established programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).[16] Many cite the recent obstacles faced by attempts to extend the Child Tax Credit, which expired last year and was considered one of the best supports for low-income families.[17] Concerns about paying for any guaranteed income programs have also been raised, matched by arguments that savings from other programs would compensate for any costs.[18] Despite successes reported by pilot programs, these programs still face serious concerns about their efficacy and potential for enactment.

The recent programs in D.C. targeting mothers present opportunities to meet the specific economic challenges they face. In 2021, single-parent households made up 31.7% of families living below the poverty line.[19] Of those single-family households, 17.4% of father-only households lived below the poverty line, compared to 31.7% of mother-only households.[20] Poverty is linked to higher maternal mortality, worse health outcomes for children, and a higher risk of trauma.[21] A report from September 2021 showed that the average cost of raising a newborn was $29,000, and new mothers spent over $300 a month on basic expenses such as diapers, wipes, and formula.[22] Targeting mothers for guaranteed income programs could helped to offset these costs. However, these programs face the same criticisms that nationwide UBI faces – worries that they will eliminate incentives to work and will cost too much government money, taking away from other welfare programs[23].

Guaranteed income programs for mothers or parents living in poverty could be one piece of the puzzle of alleviating American poverty. However, lack of support and concerns about undermining proven government assistance programs make the implementation of these programs unlikely. Results of the pilot programs that have launched in recent years have proven that these programs are worth further investigation and could form the basis for a new generation of economic policy.

 

[1] Press Release, Office of Mayor Muriel Bowser, Mayor Bowser Announces $1.5 Million Direct Cash Assistance Program to Support New and Expectant Moms (Jan. 13, 2022), https://mayor.dc.gov/release/mayor-bowser-announces-15-million-direct-cash-assistance-program-support-new-and-expectant [hereinafter Mayor Bowser Announces Cash Assistance Program].

[2] Michael Brice-Saddler, D.C. Sent $10,800 To Dozens of New Moms. Here’s How It Changed Their Lives., Wash. Post (Feb 1, 2024), https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2024/02/01/dc-cash-payments-mothers-pilot-program/.

[3] Id.

[4] See Mary Bogle, Insights from a D.C. Cash Relief Program Can Inform Discussion About Federal Cash-Based Policies, Urban Institute Greater D.C. (Dec. 8, 2020), https://greaterdc.urban.org/blog/insights-dc-cash-relief-program-can-inform-discussions-about-federal-cash-based-policies?utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=thrive_partner.; Kaela Roeder, This New Basic Income Program Supports Black Mothers With Children in the Welfare System, Dcist (June 22, 2023), https://dcist.com/story/23/06/22/dc-guaranteed-basic-income-mother-child-welfare/.

[5] Jada Yuan, The Surprising, Enduring Relevance of Andrew Yang and His Ideas, Wash. Post (Mar. 23, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/the-surprising-enduring-relevance-of-andrew-yang-and-his-ideas/2020/03/22/89a9d424-6ac3-11ea-b313-df458622c2cc_story.html.

[6] Megan Greenwell, Universal Basic Income Has Been Tested Repeatedly. It Works. Will America Ever Embrace It?, Wash. Post Magazine (Oct. 24, 2022), https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2022/10/24/universal-basic-income/.

[7] What is UBI?, Stanford Basic Income Lab, https://basicincome.stanford.edu/about/what-is-ubi/ (last visited Feb. 17, 2024).

[8] Roby Chavez, New Orleans Hopes Giving Young People A Guaranteed Monthly Income Can Break the Cycle of Poverty, PBS News Hour (May 21, 2022), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/new-orleans-is-giving-youth-350-a-month-heres-why; Mary Bogle, Insights from a D.C. Cash Relief Program Can Inform Discussion About Federal Cash-Based Policies, Urban Institute Greater D.C. (Dec. 8, 2020), https://greaterdc.urban.org/blog/insights-dc-cash-relief-program-can-inform-discussions-about-federal-cash-based-policies?utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=thrive_partner; Zachary Green, A New Program is Giving Some New York Moms $1,000 A Month, PBS News Hour (Mar. 5, 2022), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/a-new-program-is-giving-some-new-york-moms-1000-a-month.

[9] Press Release, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, The Guaranteed Income Pilot Program Act of 2023 Would Set Up Three-Year Program to Provide a Monthly Income to Test Group and Study Impacts (Sept. 27, 2023), https://schakowsky.house.gov/media/press-releases/schakowsky-watson-coleman-lead-introduction-guaranteed-income-pilot-program.

[10] Guaranteed Income Pilot Program Act of 2023, H.R. 5776, 118th Cong. (2023).

[11] Meryl Kornfield, A City Gave People $500 A Month, no Strings Attached, To Fight Poverty. It Paid Off, Study Says, Wash. Post (June 13, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/03/03/stockton-universal-basic-income/.

[12] Adam Beam, Employment Rose Among Those in Free Money Experiment, Study Shows, PBS News Hour (Mar. 3, 2021), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/employment-rose-among-those-in-free-money-experiment-study-shows.

[13] Greenwell, supra note 6.

[14] Joe Heim, Targeted Project Bolsters Some Low-income District Families With Cash Payments, Wash. Post (Jan 1, 2021), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/private-emergency-cash-relief/2021/01/01/6f1c7f92-4b7a-11eb-a9f4-0e668b9772ba_story.html.

[15] Hannah Gilberstadt, More Americans Oppose than Favor the Government Providing a Universal Basic Income for All Adults, Pew Rsch. Ctr. (Aug. 19, 2020), https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2020/08/19/more-americans-oppose-than-favor-the-government-providing-a-universal-basic-income-for-all-adult-citizens/.

[16] Greenwell, supra note 6.

[17] Adam N Michel and Vanessa Brown Clader, The Case Against the Child Tax Credit, CATO Institute (July 31, 2023), https://www.cato.org/blog/case-against-child-tax-credit.

[18] Robert Greenstein, Commentary: Universal Basic Income May Sound Attractive But, If It Occurred, Would Likelier Increase Poverty Than Reduce It, Ctr. On Budget and Pol’y Priorities (June 13, 2019), https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-opportunity/commentary-universal-basic-income-may-sound-attractive-but-if-it.

[19] U.S. Dept. of Just. Off. Of Juv. Just. And Delinq. Prevention, Poverty Status of Children by Family Structure, https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/statistical-briefing-book/population/faqs/qa01203 (last visited Feb. 18, 2024).

[20] Id.

[21] Maria Marti-Castaner et al., Poverty After Birth: How Mothers Experience and Navigate U.S. Safety Net Programs to Address Family Needs, 31 J. of Child and Fam. Serv. 2248 at 2249 (2022), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9073812/.

[22] Mayor Bowser Announces Cash Assistance Program, supra note 1.

[23] Beam, supra note 12.