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In a 1967 speech at Stanford University, Martin Luther King Jr. outlined hopes for guaranteed income as an antidote to economic inequity. Fifty-five years later, an initiative in his home state will put guaranteed income to the test by facilitating over $13 million in cash assistance to Black women living below the poverty line. 

The In Her Hands Initiative is a partnership between the Georgia Resilience and Opportunity (GRO) Fund and GiveDirectly, which seek to facilitate over $850 a month to 650 Black women in Georgia. It is the largest income initiative in the South and the first to center on Black women across metro, suburban, and rural areas. 

Not to be confused with Universal Basic Income (UBI), guaranteed income is monthly cash assistance for those who are low income, whereas UBI is cash support extended to everyone, regardless of their financial background. Guaranteed income has a long ideological history and its long-held support hinges on the way it gives funds to recipients with no strings attached. It contrasts with many social programs that rely heavily on stipulations like an individual already having employment.

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Clay, Randolph, and Terrell are small counties in southwestern Georgia that are eligible to participate in the project. The counties are majority African American and have median household incomes about half that of the U.S. overall. Click on counties to see more economic and population data.

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Eleven guaranteed income programs were established in 2021 when unemployment was high because of the pandemic. 

“What we saw during Covid was that existing fault lines around race and gender disparities were exacerbated,” said Hope Wollensack, executive director of the GRO Fund, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “Whether those were the health outcomes or the economic fallout …Anytime there’s a crisis, it’s always those who have the least who lose out the most.” 

Overall, 33 guaranteed income programs have been put into practice in states and cities across the country. A study based on Stockton, California’s guaranteed income program found that participants saw an increase in their quality of life, and participants were also more likely to find consistent full-time employment. Participants spent more than a third of the income on food. The other largest categories of spending were merchandise like clothing and household goods, auto care, and utilities. Less than 1% was spent on alcohol and cigarettes.

Michelle Lockhart of the Old Fourth Ward Economic Security Task Force, which is part of the first phase of the guaranteed income initiative. (Screen capture from submitted video)

In Her Hands is the first initiative of its kind to focus entirely on Black women and to purposefully include participants in urban, suburban, and rural areas. The first phase of the project took place in Martin Luther King’s childhood neighborhood, Old Fourth Ward in Atlanta. The second phase of the project will focus on rural southwest Georgia.

“It’s incredibly important that we have communities that are often not thought of, communities that are often overlooked when it comes to these conversations,” Wollensack said. “For us, Southwest Georgia has been a huge engine that has made Georgia great.” 

Southwest Georgia suffers from limited job opportunities, which have contributed to a population decrease. The program will serve three counties—Clay, Terrell, and Randloph—in the most economically troubled part of the state. Combined, the counties are predominantly Black, and the median household income range is $29,000 to $35,000 a year – about half the national figure. 

According to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, Black women take home 63 cents on the dollar compared to what White men are paid. They are more likely to work than women of other races, but they are also twice as likely as White women to live in poverty. 

Still, Black women remain the community linchpin, said Wollensack, often providing the everyday assistance that limited social services can’t. This can include actions such as making sure children are getting to school or that their neighbor has a ride to a hospital an hour away.

“When you take all these things into account, it’s something that we’re missing, something policy-wise that we’re missing,” said Wollensack.  “By starting by focusing on Black women, we’re looking to develop policies that can help create a thriving and just economy for everyone.” 

Despite common assumptions, having a job is one of many factors that does not necessarily improve quality of life for most Black women, research has shown. Nevertheless, Wollensack recognizes that people with more economic stability may suspect that the guaranteed income would be wasted due to poor money management. But lack of money – not poor planning on how to use it – is the problem. Wollensack said program applicants already know how they plan to spend the money.

“These funds are going to be used to cover critical things that people have been going without and I just want to emphasize that,” said Wollensack. “They’re quite literally right now going without. So this additional cash is not, you know…superfluous.” 

The money will cover basic bills, transportation, clothing, and other essential needs.

The end goal of the initiative is to spark policy change that could guarantee everyone a stable, dignified life, Wollensack said. There are already similar ongoing government income programs like the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit. The hope is that the In Her Hands initiative will be an example of how to build on them, Wollensack said. 

“I think the current problem is that there just aren’t enough,” said Wollensack. “I hope that this program can be leading us in the right direction towards creating that just and inclusive economy where no child is going hungry.” 

Out of those who apply for the second phase of the initiative between June 6 and June 26, 210 women who make less than two times the federal poverty level will receive monthly payments for two years—a timeline decided by a community coalition. Twice the poverty level is about $27,000 for an individual or about $56,000 for a family of four.

Michelle Lockhart, who was part of the Old Fourth Ward Economic Security Task Force, says the initiative will bring relief to a community racked by economic uncertainty where no level of employment brought stability during the pandemic. It will help lift participants out of desperation enough to actually enjoy their lives, said Lockhart. 

“Some people are gifted enough to come out of, rise up out of the ashes like the Phoenix during chaos, but some people can’t,” said Lockhart in a prepared video statement. “ I think with that extra bit of cash…they’ll be able to feel sunlight on their skin. They can feel the wind blowing. You can hear the birds chirping. When you’re in survival mode you don’t hear anything.” 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Michelle Lockhart of the Old Fourth Ward Economic Security Task Force in a photograph as Hope Wollensack, executive director of the GRO Fund. We apologize for the error.

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