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As a member of the MIL, Ebonee Bell focuses on the Multnomah Mothers’ Trust program, a study in a monthly unconditional cash transfer to Black female-headed households with children.
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 19 June 2024

A program that has helped Black mothers get ahead in Multnomah County must find a new funding source as American Rescue Plan financing runs out after this year.

The Multnomah Mothers Trust program launched in 2022 to provide 100 Black women-led households with $500 monthly unrestricted payments. In the program’s first year, 75 women were referred through the Black Parent Initiative, and 25 more through WomenFirst.

james posey introJames Posey“If we don’t do this kind of stuff, what we’re doing is creating a broader pipeline from these situations to the criminal justice system to the emergency room expenses, every imaginable (issue) we have,” NAACP Portland President James Posey told The Skanner. “Maybe people don’t make the connection, but homicide rates, the suicide rates, all of that is exponentially impacted by mothers’ inability to take care of their kids.”

As Posey points out, there is a large body of data demonstrating how institutions at every level of American life seem to fail Black women most, from higher maternal death rates to lower life expectancy, to the fact that Black women on average earn only 70% of their White male counterparts.

“Mothers who maybe have been the recipients of most of the pain and the disparate treatment are suffering the most,” Posey said. “I don’t know if we really understand this – if you don’t take care of these mothers and these women, we’re all lost. They’re the foundation for everything we do.”

Posey, on behalf of the NAACP Portland, has appealed to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners to find funding sources for the Multnomah Mothers Trust program (MMTP), and to expand it to include Indigenous and Latinx women. The MMTP’s operating budget for this year was $1.35 million.

Small Cost, Measurable Impacts

Ebonee Bell heads up the MMTP. At its launch, she described the very tangible impact such payments make on the most vulnerable.

Bell highlighted the Baby’s First Years program in New York City, which studied how poverty reduction impacts cognitive, emotional and brain development in infants and toddlers by supplying monthly payments of $333 to low-income participants.

“Those findings are very, very famous, because they used this electroencephalography machine they put on the babies’ heads and they measured the brainwave activity of the children,” Bell told county leaders. “They found an increase in the absolute gamma and the absolute beta waves of the babies, which they think will translate into greater cognitive development. The $333 a month is not very much money, but all of the women in this study were making $20,000 a year or less, so $333 a month represented a significant portion of their income – 20%. And yet you have this very statistically significant increase in cognitive development. They likened the increase to the sort of intervention you might have if you reduced class size – so it’s very significant.”

mary li introMary LiProponents argue these unrestricted cash transfers can be a crucial survival tool at a time when housing costs are soaring, wages have largely stagnated and inflation has increased the price of food and basic household staples. Such programs have gained traction in recent years: From the city of Stockton, Calif. to the nations of Finland, Kenya and others, guaranteed income programs have been introduced on the small scale, allowing policy makers to observe the impact of direct cash transfers to often vulnerable populations.

Unrestricted funds foster a greater sense of dignity for participants, according to program leaders. The recipients themselves are the most knowledgeable about where the money will have the most impact in their lives.

“What we get when we give help that’s unconditional is self-determination,” Mary Li, director of the Multnomah Idea Lab at the Multnomah County Department of County Human Services, said.

“Autonomy. Increased executive functioning. And hope – which is a research-based component of behavioral change.”

The program does not require trust members to report how they allocate their monthly payments, but gives them the option to participate in online surveys, for which they are paid an additional $50. Half of the trust members have chosen to participate this year.

Affording Better Options

bahia overton fullBahia Overton
Bahia Overton, executive director of the Black Parent Initiative, said that in the first year of the program, 90% of trust members referred through her organization elected to participate in optional financial literacy courses.

“They said they’ve used the money to cover utilities while dealing with medical issues and other family emergencies, they use some of the money to pay for their kids’ tuition at schools that they weren’t able to before, they were able to use it towards rent after being laid off – a couple people had started new jobs and didn’t have enough money to cover their rent,” Bahia summarized for county leaders. “Some of them were just waiting for that first check to pay late bills, they were able to pay for unexpected car repairs, throw their child an actual birthday party. One is saving money toward home ownership. One has decided to focus that money mostly on their self-care when they’re overwhelmed, which is really good because we’re doing a lot of work with mental health.

“All the moms have talked about how grateful they are to have that cushion, that it’s meant everything to them and it’s made a huge difference. We had workable vehicles purchased, one person purchased her first washer and dryer – she’d never had a washer and dryer. She always had to go to the laundromat.”

As Bahia pointed out, adding ease and convenience to participants’ lives is beneficial to familial relationships.

“I always look at how these things create balance and stability in the home: When you’re less stressed, you’re more patient with your kids. We’re always talking with our families about beaming light and love to their kids. It’s hard to do when you’re trying to keep the lights on and you don’t know how to do that.”

Another mother used funds from the program to provide proof of income when moving into a place of her own. Yet another said she was able to purchase healthier foods to make better meals for her family.

Trust member La'Quonda embodies how unrestricted guaranteed income can not only help stabilize a family, but help mothers think more expansively. The mother of two turned to WomenFirst for support in getting and staying sober, and she reports she has now been clean for four years. Joining the trust enabled her to catch up on all of her bills and late rent, she said, and even to drive again after she was able to pay off outstanding tickets to get her license current again. She then moved her children into a larger place and established a life insurance policy to protect her family – and is pursuing home ownership.

In other words, the trust fund has allowed La’Quonda to move beyond a survival-mode way of thinking. This in turn has allowed her to strengthen relationships with her parents and her two children.

“It allows my family to see that I’m not struggling or stressed out all the time trying to get the money, especially coming from a recovery state of mind,” La’Quonda said. “I’m not thinking about recovery. I have the opportunity to think about other things.”

The psychological impact of having sufficient resources is especially important as BIPOC communities consistently show higher rates of chronic stress than their White counterparts.

“When you’re in a stressful situation, your blood pressure goes up, your whole body functions go sideways, and anything we can do to mitigate that will add to the healing,” Posey said.

“That's really what this is all about – the healing.”

In testimony last year about guaranteed income programs, Sen. Kayse Jama (D-Portland) testified against the “knee-jerk critique” that such programs often fund poor habits, like alcohol or drug abuse.

There is credible research, Jama argued, to suggest that guaranteed income “results in reduced spending on alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs, perhaps due to improved financial security and wellbeing that reduces stress and thus reduces individuals’ need to seek out coping mechanisms.”

For more information about the program, visit www.multco.us/multnomah-idea-lab/multnomah-mother’s-trust.

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