Sarah Stripp is the managing director of Jackson-based nonprofit Springboard to Opportunities, which supports low-income Mississippians. During the water crisis, when families couldn’t rely on clean water from their own pipes, Stripp’s organization was giving households $150 a month to buy bottled water. The group is best known for its guaranteed income program, Magnolia Mother’s Trust. Stripp sat down with reporter Sara DiNatale to talk about her work and what the group’s learned entering its fifth year of the income program.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sara DiNatale: Well, first off, if you could just tell me a little bit about your nonprofit, Springboard to Opportunities, and all of the types of things you do and the type of gaps that you try to help fill for women in Jackson?
Stripp: So we are an organization that works with families who live in federally subsidized housing, and provide programs and services to help them meet their goals. So subsidized housing, particularly in Mississippi is like 99%, headed by single women and about 99% of those families are Black.
So while technically, our mission is to reach families, and affordable housing, it tends to be Black mothers who are kind of like the main recipients of our work. We really started in 2013 as a resident-service provider. We were basically contracted by private developers to come and provide additional services to families in affordable housing. So that could be everything from providing housing stability, helping folks if they’re behind on rent and trying to figure out some different resources, or making sure that they’re able to keep up their apartments. Then, having things they need for that, too, like helping folks get childcare or providing after school programs, workforce support programs or different things like that.
And so we work really closely with community members themselves to actually tell us what it is that they need, as opposed to coming in and deciding for them what they need. Because we believe families know better than anybody else what it is that they need in order to thrive and meet their goals.
DiNatale: So, what do they need? And how has that turned into programs that you offer?
Stripp: As we would design programming, we would do that hand-in-hand with community members and do our best to make sure that it was lining up with what they were asking for. And at the same time, we also really recognize that programming can only do so much. And at the end of the day, if there’s not good policies to support families, nothing’s going to change.
It was through some of that work, and through conversations that we were having with families, where we kept hearing them say: ‘You know, what I actually need to reach my goal is not like another program or another thing that I have to attend, right? It’s cash … Food stamps are only going to cover food. My housing voucher only covers housing. I also need diapers; I also need transportation; I also need childcare. I need all these other things. If I’m trying to do that, I need the freedom to be able to spend cash in the way that I see fit for me and my family, as opposed to in the way that a government voucher has decided I should spend it.’
So from that, we wanted to really honor our mission and who we are as an organization and said, ‘OK, so let’s figure out how we’re going to do that.’ So we started a small pilot in 2018, with 20 black mothers called the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which was really the first guaranteed income program … that launched in the country.
DiNatale: So how does the program work and what did you see start to happen?
Stripp: We were working at that point (in 2018) with just 20 moms who received $1,000 a month for 12 months with no strings attached … to see what would happen. And just to kind of put it out there … When moms get money, they spend it to support their families.
Whether that was being able to go back to school or move to a higher paying job, moving out of affordable housing, being able to take their kids to see their grandfather for the first time or some families went down to the beach for the first time and were able to take vacations. One mom bought her son a tuba so that he could be in the marching band. (It was) these little things that moms have always wanted to provide for their kids.
We were able to get some really good traction from that early pilot. And then we were able to expand that in the next year to about 110 moms. Actually, each year since, we’ve had about 100 moms go through a cohort of getting $1,000 a month for 12 months. And then we’ve added in, in addition to that, a $1,000 deposit and in a 529 (college) savings account for their kids so that they’re having the opportunity to build some wealth for their children.
We also have this opportunity to make sure that the stories of our moms are being put out there. We knew nothing was going to be able to change at a federal or state policy level if we continue to operate with … whatever these kind of nasty narratives around moms who are on welfare, that they’re going to abuse the system or that they don’t know what they’re doing with their money.
DiNatale: What are some of the expectations that you had going into the pilot? Were those met, exceeded or different than what the actual outcome was? What did you really wind up learning?
Stripp: We didn’t have a whole lot of expectations, because we wanted to leave the doors open. We were really asking questions around: When you give moms cash do they have the breathing room and the space to be able to actually think about their goals and what they want to do?
They have time to step back and take some time to go back to school and work on the career that they really wanted, as opposed to running between three part-time jobs just trying to make ends meet … People are able to save some of this money and move out of affordable housing or move into a higher paying career.
I think everything got really complicated with the second cohort because COVID came in, and it changed everything. On top of COVID, we just kind of have these compounding crises – the water crisis – and folks losing jobs because of that, because they’ve had to stay home with their kids (when classes went remote online).
But at the same time, I think what we really have seen … particularly in the second, third, and now we’re just about to wrap up our fourth cohort, what’s come out and all of the different kinds of evaluations and pieces that we’ve done has been a really increased sense of parental efficacy. So, moms feeling like they’re able to be the moms that they want to be for the first time. It’s a really big growth in their own sense of agency and their own sense of self-confidence.
DiNatale: I know a report is coming out later this month that covers more deeply what you’ve learned through this process. But with that work done, and lessons learned, is the plan to continue this program?
Stripp: We’re committed to at least having one more cohort that will start later this fall. I think there might be some pieces that look a little bit different based on things that we’ve learned, but we’re still kind of fleshing out a lot of those details. We want to at least do it once more. What we had committed to, at the beginning, was five years.
Ultimately, what we know is that we are a drop in the bucket. We are providing something for a subset of moms here in Jackson. And that’s important, but it’s not enough. And even the length of the program that we’re able to do is not enough. And I think all of these pilots that we’re seeing, a lot of people are using (American Rescue Plan Act) funds and other things to be able to do these (types of programs) in different cities, that’s great. But again, it’s never going to be totally what we want to see.
Our goal has always been, and what we’ve always said from the beginning, was to actually change federal policy and be able to see something come out of this — where we are creating more cash and trust-based benefits for families as opposed to limited vouchers or a social safety net that’s really easy to fall through.
DiNatale: So your goal, really, is changing the way America treats welfare and assistance programs. With the situation of the Mississippi welfare scandal in mind – the alleged misuse of $77 million in TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) funds – have you seen the conversation change at all about welfare dollar use?
Stripp: I would say no, not on a community level. Before we actually started doing the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, we had done an ad before the welfare scandal…came out, and in about 2017, we did a paper with (public policy think tank) New America, and interviewed a lot of our moms to talk about TANF…And I think, at that point, that was when less than 2% of applications were even being seen. And when we talked to moms about TANF and welfare their response was always like, ‘Oh, I don’t even bother with that; it’s not even worth my time.’ They had either applied before or tired before and it just never made sense. So most of them felt so kind of disillusioned by the system to begin with.
DiNatale: What about state leadership? Has anyone responded to the idea of changing how assistance works?
Stripp: I would say in Mississippi, no. The players at the table who we know would be into this are into it, and the players who are not into it are not interested. The (Mississippi) Democratic Caucus has been really supportive. We had moms come and testify, like the TANF legislative hearings … We’ve tried to have some conversations with the Department of Human Services that haven’t really gone anywhere.