An experiment with creative financial assistance for 20 low-income single mothers in Jackson drew the attention of The Washington Post, which last weekend published an informative story about it.
The mothers took part in one of the country’s first pilot programs to see what happened when they received money — in this case, $1,000 a month for a year — with no strings attached.
The results, as might be expected, are mixed. The nonprofit organization Springboard to Opportunities, which got the money from a foundation called the Economic Security Project, reports that many of the women in the program have paid off loans and have been able to avoid using a payday lender.
For most, there are some tentative and badly needed steps up the economic ladder. But there is also the reality that most participants have little to no experience in handling money or keeping a bank account.
Perhaps the most important element of the story is this: Mississippi has a relatively low minimum wage and relatively harsh penalties against food stamp recipients who violate the program’s work requirements. Add in the fact that rising income typically reduces government benefits, and it left many potential participants unwilling to take the risk with Springboard.
When 110 low-income single mothers are offered the chance for a no-strings-attached $12,000 over the course of a year, something is wrong when only 38 of them apply for the program. The simple answer is that they feared losing their government assistance, and they also worried about the bureaucratic hassles of regaining them when the Springboard program ended.
Fifteen of the 20 women had jobs when they started receiving the money last December. One admitted to a social worker that she blew all of her thousand bucks in a single weekend. Others had similar stories of Christmas extravagance, and that prompted the nonprofit to set up counseling sessions with a financial adviser to teach the women about bank accounts, interest rates and credit ratings.
So far, there have been no dramatic turnarounds. The changes are small but noticeable — just the sort of things that can be building blocks for greater improvements over time.
One woman used the money to finish community college. Another put $1,000 down and helped build her family a Habitat for Humanity home. Nearly all said they had enough to buy school supplies this summer, when less than half said that previously. They were eating healthy, seeing doctors and attending church more often.
The 20 women in Springboard’s program truly are a few drops in a large pond of struggling people in Mississippi. The results indicate that the extra money helps, but does not cure all problems. Hopefully a majority of the participants will add to their small victories when the monthly payments end in November.