“If you really want families to stay together or to reunify, material needs should not be part of the equation. Otherwise you’re just penalizing people for poverty.”
It’s well documented that child welfare predominantly impacts low-income families and that economic setbacks, like trouble paying for food or rent, predict investigations. Yet the system responds to poverty-based “neglect” primarily with services, and families can be permanently separated simply because parents lack employment or housing.
Melody Webb, founder of Mother’s Outreach Network in Washington, D.C., has been educating parents about their rights for more than 10 years, but last year founded the D.C. Universal Basic Income Coalition to focus on ensuring that families don’t get system-involved—or stay system-involved—because of poverty.
Here, Melody explains how the D.C. UBI Coalition came together and won a “guaranteed income” pilot program, and how she’s fighting for cash support for system-involved families, too.
Q: What made you decide to focus on the fight for guaranteed income as a child welfare issue?
A: For the past year, I’ve been working toward a guaranteed income in Washington, D.C.. I represented parents in child welfare cases, and I acutely feel this issue, because my clients were eligible for nothing and didn’t have anything.
I myself grew up in a very modest upbringing. My own mother grew up in the South as one of 13 children. I lived in public housing for the first 15 years of my life. I was always exposed—more so than most lawyers—and that informed my outlook on people struggling.
When I learned as a lawyer that these parents struggling with so many issues were not going to be provided with the essentials to have a stable home, I thought, “If more people knew this, more eyes would be open.”
The reunification part is what really got to me. A client would lose custody of a child, she would lose cash assistance, her housing would fall apart, she would lose everything except Medicaid. For reunification, their goal was getting all that back to have an appropriate placement for the child. Yet there are no existing safety net programs to help you rebuild as a single person unless you’re disabled or over 65. If you’re not on SSI or retirement, you don’t have any hooks into the social safety net. You’re just out there without any support. The economic security of the parent became the barrier.
If you really want kids to be home or to reunify, you should make sure that housing and putting food on the table is not an issue. If you’re keeping my electricity on and water running, only then should you begin to judge my parenting. We ultimately take people’s children away for lack of water and electricity. Meanwhile, by today’s standards, the conditions of poverty that rural Black families have lived in would be neglectful.
The role that poverty plays is also the underlying factor even in abuse cases and certainly neglect. I was fortunate enough to be home with my kids without earning an income, and the trials and tribulations of raising kids under any conditions are substantial. If I were working, dealing with the stress of a boss, trying to get to and from my job, didn’t have a car…What if I had all these extra barriers as a parent?
Q: How did the D.C. UBI Coalition come together?
A: Mother’s Outreach began 10 years ago, but last year I thought we really should do more investigation of guaranteed income using this medium of Zoom to just learn more. This is a moral imperative started in the 1960s by Johnnie Tillmon and the women leading the National Welfare Rights Association and elevated by Dr. King because of the poverty in our nation.
There is a program in D.C. that’s been in operation since the pandemic started, a cash transfer program Thrive East of the River Pilot, a collaboration of four organizations. There’s been a lot in the press about them, they were dispersing to $1,100 to 500 families given as a lump sum or in monthly increments.
So we thought, “How can we bring a bunch of people together from different advocacy communities to learn about guaranteed income?” We had always partnered with other organizations on strengthening people’s knowledge of their rights. We’d go into schools, nonprofits, women’s facilities, and did workshops for men on economic rights, employment rights, criminal records.
We created the D.C. UBI Coalition. Our group did a lot of hard work, and worked with council members interested in doing something. We had guest speakers.
We evolved over the year. We started with Universal Basic Income but decided that was not a realistic plan and that Guaranteed Income would be more realistic and more reflective of the need for racial justice.
A study done in 2018 by the D.C. City Council Budget Office about a minimum income in Washington D.C. did a cost analysis of all these concepts. We saw that UBI in D.C. would be cost-prohibitive and would cut down on D.C.’s ability to access federal benefits.
Q: What has the Coalition achieved so far?
A: D.C now has a guaranteed income fund. This was just passed in 2021 and it’s a big deal. It’s $1.5 million and the regulations haven’t been written yet, but it will be a pilot program and there will be grants given to nonprofits that can give cash grants to people. The nonprofits administer the funds.
Secondly, our organization has been trying to raise money to run a pilot program specifically for moms involved with CPS. Our goal is to have one fund that includes moms that have already been separated as well as one for those facing challenges. We are trying to design what that looks like.
We are trying to learn more about the funding that’s available. There’s this whole big pot of money in this foster care system, and it’s unequal who gets support. TANF is $400 per child per month, whereas the foster care maintenance payment to foster parents is over $1,000 per child. That’s very compelling. We plan to ask the city to fund this approach.
Q: How would a guaranteed income affect other government-run income supports, like unemployment benefits, TANF and SNAP?
A: In reality, states can be flexible with TANF and SNAP. They have flexibility around changing eligibility requirements so parents can get more support than they do now.
But the challenge is that, for individual parents, getting cash support from a guaranteed income or cash transfer program can actually make them lose eligibility for the financial support they have through these other programs.
The Stockton program has already proven that $500 makes a big difference, and there’s some data out there that it doesn’t severely impact people’s existing benefits.
We’re studying the question: What are all the options for protecting existing safety net benefits, and what would be the costs to a jurisdiction to raise the limit on income permitted? We don’t know all the consequences and mechanisms for protecting individuals and states.
Some believe that to develop these programs, we really need the feds to change benefits eligibility. Otherwise you have to create waivers and keep applying for them.
I want it to be the case that people get direct cash so they can pay for groceries, clothing, household products and their rent, to meet all their basic needs.
Ultimately, we can eradicate poverty, stop criminalizing poverty and support parents. If you really want families to stay together or to reunify, material needs should not be part of the equation. Otherwise you’re just penalizing people for poverty.
–– Reporting by Keyna Franklin and Nora McCarthy