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MLK’s Atlanta borough is trying a new way to fight poverty: direct cash payments


In Atlanta’s Old Fourth neighborhood, a $13 million initiative is launching this spring to give money directly to people experiencing poverty. It’s an idea called guaranteed income.

Pilot projects are already underway across the country, but it’s no coincidence that this trial is taking place in the former Fourth Ward, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born, preached and is now buried.

“He knew our civil rights were hollow if we didn’t also have economic rights to back them up, so among the reforms he advocated was a guaranteed income,” said Hope Wollensack, executive director of Georgia Resilience. and Opportunity Fund, the group helping to run the “In Her Hands” guaranteed income pilot project.

The pilot project will provide hundreds of low-income black women in the King neighborhood with cash payments that they can use as they wish — an average of $850 per month for two years. The organization says 38% of black women in the Old Fourth Ward live in poverty, which is significantly higher than other demographic groups.

Guaranteed income is a departure from traditional anti-poverty programs such as food stamps. Wollensack says cash allows people to pay off debts, afford a reliable car or regular childcare.

“Those with the lowest incomes often make some of the best financial decisions and that component of choice and agency really reflects how we trust people to be experts in their own lives, and our current programs don’t. don’t,” she said.

The pilot will eventually expand to other communities in metro Atlanta and rural Georgia. Organizers hope to prove that programs like this will help lift people out of poverty.

Michelle Lockhart is convinced it will.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. promoted guaranteed income towards the end of his life. An Atlanta pilot will take off this spring in the neighborhood where he was born and where he is now buried. (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

She has lived in the Old Fourth Ward most of her life. There were times when extra money would have made a huge difference, like when she lost her job and couldn’t afford the car.

“The car people kept calling me, ‘We need payment. We need payment,'” Lockhart said. “And I was like, ‘I’m trying to figure it out. things.’ And it stressed me out so much that I remember shaking.

Atlanta resident Michelle Lockhart says cash payments will help people struggling to pay off debt and get reliable transportation or childcare. (Courtesy of Michelle Lockhart)

Lockhart says it’s impossible to start a business or look for a better job when you’re just struggling to stay above water.

“The inability to get off the hamster wheel: this kid is sick, so you have to take him to the doctor, you have to stop working. And now you’re missing hours and you’re going to miss somewhere on a bill because that you miss days at work,” she says.

Even experts who embrace guaranteed income say it should always be bundled with other policies.

Luke Shaefer, who directs the Poverty Solutions program at the University of Michigan, says some traditional programs, like early childhood education, really work. But he says policymakers need to ask themselves:

“Would people be better off if I just gave them the money I spent on this program or if I gave them this program?”

Shaefer says the pandemic may have eroded some people’s discomfort with giving money directly to people facing economic hardship. Federal pandemic relief checks and the expansion of the Child Tax Credit were quite popular at the height of the pandemic and reduced child poverty.

Although that doesn’t mean lawmakers will be rushing to fund guaranteed income on a massive scale.

Proposals to make the expanded federal child tax credit permanent, for example, have now died in Congress and support has faded.

“Could it be that we had this historic moment, where we took an approach that we hadn’t done before, and then went back to our old ways?” Shaefer said.

On the terrace of the Dancing Goats cafe, where lattes are $5 and there’s a West Elm and a Warby Parker next door, Amir Farokhi says Dr. King’s neighborhood is changing fast.

Farokhi co-chairs the Guaranteed Income Pilot Project and represents Old Fourth Ward on the Atlanta City Council.

“So you literally have million-dollar homes on the same block of subsidized housing built 50 years ago,” he says. “It’s in many ways a reflection of Atlanta at large.”

Amir Farokhi represents Old Fourth Ward on the Atlanta City Council. (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

Atlanta ranks among the top cities for income inequality in the country. A smaller pilot across the city of Atlanta will also launch soon, but attracting state support to expand this program unconditionally would be a steep climb.

In Georgia, Republicans have touted work requirements, even for benefits like Medicaid. For now, this pilot project is funded by philanthropic dollars. But Farokhi says officials need to do more to tackle poverty.

“Whether you work 200,000 or 30,000 a year, there should be a place for you in this neighborhood and in this city,” he says.

This spring, Farokhi and others hope they will begin to reduce the inequalities Dr. King preached about in this city more than half a century ago.