A ‘Radically Resident Driven’ Approach to Helping Mississippians
The expanded Child Tax Credit has been a game-changer for many families this year and nowhere more than in the economically-challenged state of Mississippi. Aisha Nyandoro, chief executive officer of Springboard to Opportunities in Jackson, Ms., has led efforts to make sure that families who are eligible for the CTC have had an opportunity to receive it. Springboard to Opportunities also administers a nationally lauded universal basic income project in Jackson, as well as helping coordinate efforts to advocate for passage of Medicaid expansion in the state. Nyandoro spoke with Spotlight recently about the whirlwind year of 2021 for her and her organization. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Why don’t we start with explaining what Springboard to Opportunities is all about?
Springboard to Opportunities provides programs and services for families that live in federally subsidized, affordable housing. We are based here in Jackson, Mississippi—that’s where our headquarters are and the majority of our footprint is located, as we’re currently in five affordable housing communities in Jackson. But we also are in other parts of the state of Mississippi as well and we have a small footprint in Maryland and Alabama. We pride ourselves on taking a holistic approach to services and we pride ourselves on being radically resident driven. What that means for us is that we provide programs and services that our families tell us directly that they need to advance in school and work. And what that means is that we take a holistic approach to the work that we do.
Prior to COVID, we were doing everything from after-school programs, workforce development, and training. We had a few healthcare clinics on site in some of our communities, as well as food pantries. But in being radically resident driven, since COVID we have shifted drastically. From being about economic mobility, in many ways we now are about stability and making sure that families in real time have the information that they need to continue to thrive and be okay. A perfect example of that: When COVID hit in March 2020, we were on spring break here in Mississippi when the news came that schools were not going to reopen after spring break. Parents were in a panic and because of the relationships that we have with families, a lot of the families reached out directly to our staff to try to figure out what this meant for them and their kids. And we were coordinating and having conversations with the district to try to figure out what it means. But at the same time, we were also coordinating and having conversations with other partners about Chromebooks and hotspots to make sure that we got those in the hands of individuals. That’s just an example of what it means to transform and continue to transition.
We’ve also been on the frontline of COVID education and COVID vaccines over the last year and providing any information and doing the on-the-ground outreach that our families need around those conversations. So, that’s a little bit of how we operate. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of fun work. We support about 5,000 families individually and we’re now gearing up for Christmas. And what that means is that we’re partnering with Angel Tree to make sure that every family has Christmas and we’ll be doing food box deliveries.
This stability work is needed because even though our country is telling ourselves the narrative that the economy is recovering and we are moving out of the pandemic, recovery is always slowest for those who need it most. A lot of our families have not recovered from this pandemic. A lot of our families are still unemployed, and a lot of our families were already underemployed; a lot of them are still making $7, 25 cents an hour or an average of $10 an hour as one of those frontline employees.
What’s been the impact of the expanded Child Tax Credit and what are some of the things you are doing to be sure people get that benefit?
Since we are a community-based organization, I tell folks all the time, we operate in the space of community and policy. They are both equally important when we’re talking about economic mobility and opportunities for families that in a lot of instances do not have access to those supports. So earlier this year, when we realized that the national conversation was going to be around the child tax credit being expanded and implemented, we said, okay, what is it that we need to do to actually make sure that our families are positioned to take advantage of this? For us that meant a couple of things. We needed to make sure that our families actually knew what the child tax credit was, that it was being implemented by our government, when it was actually scheduled to hit and making sure they had all of the information necessary to either have already filed their taxes or be prepared to actually file within the portal.
And then we started door knocking. My staff went door to door knocking on every door of every potentially eligible family. So, every family that had a child under the age of 18, they knocked on the door. We did flyers. We knocked on 680 doors and did over 1,400 flyers. We helped 200 families actually complete their information in the portal. And after that first push, we did a second push that reached another 2,000 households. We were on the ground making sure. And the reason that was so important to us was because we know that there are entire predatory institution set up to take advantage of poor people. And we did not want any of our families falling prey to these scams of individuals calling them and saying, I am from the government, I’m going to help you do your CTC. We also wanted to make sure that our families actually knew that it was coming, so when it actually hit that they were prepared. We wanted our families to receive all of the resources that they are entitled to.
And being in the space of cash disbursements isn’t novel for us. The work that we did with CTC was just an extension of our belief in that cash can help ease financial instability. Since 2018, we have run a guaranteed income project called the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which is currently the longest running guaranteed income project in this country. We provide a thousand dollars a month for 12 months, no strings attached, to extremely low-income black mothers living in federally subsidized housing. We have supported over 220 women with those efforts since we started in 2018. And since we do support the full family, not only are we providing that income stability for our moms via guaranteed income, we also set up 529 accounts for their kids and we seed each one of those accounts with a thousand dollars.
To back to the CTC, what was the biggest barrier you found for families? Was it not filing their taxes? Was it a lack of internet access at home to use the portal?
The biggest issue at first was just knowledge. A lot of families did not even know that the CTC was coming. So, a lot of it at first was people saying what’s that and stop playing. It was a lot of hesitancy and just disbelief. And so, once the first checks hit in July or June and word of mouth in the community started taking hold, folks actually saw, oh, this actually is a thing. And the checks are actually being deposited directly in your check account on the 15th or being mailed and you’ll receive it a couple of days later. Once we got past that, there was less tribulation or conflict regarding the conversation. We took the issue of internet access off the table, because, like I say, my team was going around with laptops and hotspots where we could have individuals right on the spot complete their application through the portal if they had not actually filed taxes.
Let me flip the question around because I think too often the media is focusing on what’s wrong with the CTC process rather than what’s right with it. What’s the impact that you’ve seen?
So much right. We have so much anecdotal evidence because we collect the stories as well; we have an entire partnership with Ms. magazine where we share stories about our moms twice a month. The impact was immediate. On average, our moms have two kids. So, we’re talking about individuals who on average, are now receiving $600 a month unrestricted that you can use however you want to. That is a significant increase in your day-to-day life, in your ability to plan, in your agency, in your ability to move forward. One perfect example is, when the checks first hit, I asked one of our moms, what are you going to do? She said, we’re going to buy school supplies. And she has two kids and she said this will be the first time that my kids get to pick out their own backpacks. Every year they receive backpacks that are donated, and this will be the first time they get to walk through the store and pick out their own. Now, I have kids and I know how picking out your backpack is a rite of passage and it’s one of those things that many of us take for granted—the ability for our kids to pick out the backpack they want, rather than use the one they are given by a well-meaning community organization.
We also have moms who have talked about their ability to now actually be able to take maternity leave for the first time because we don’t have paid maternity leave in this country. Individuals are able to get their car fixed. People are able to actually work in a way that allows them their dignity. Another example, one of our moms had a job working at a warehouse and she needed to be at the warehouse at 5:00 AM where her daughter isn’t picked up until seven. Her manager at the warehouse was like, well, your daughter can stand outside two hours and wait for the school bus. How was that an option? And how dare you tell me that my child, my minor child, can stand outside for two hours and wait on a school bus. Well, with the CTC, she was able to get a different job. She was able to quit that job and take the time needed to find a job that actually honored the fact she is a caregiver and a mother for her child. And it also allows her the agency to make the decisions for herself and her family.
Have you found the CTC expansion has made people more supportive of cash benefits?
Not in Mississippi, unfortunately. And I don’t even know if it is nationwide. When you look at all this anxiety about whether the CTC is going to be made permanent or whether it may be tied to work requirements, I think things unfortunately are not shifting as swiftly as we need them to, which is heartbreaking. Because with the child tax credit, we are talking about child poverty. We’re simply saying that kids should not live in poverty, that all kids, despite of your race, your income, your class, your gender, where you live, your demographics, that you should have the ability to live the American dream. That’s all the CTC is saying, and we’re not even saying we want to end child poverty. We’re not even gonna be that radical. We’re just saying 50%. And we are still having to build the case for why it is a good idea to cut child poverty in half and have we’re still having to make that case. And so that’s very disheartening.
And so, we are not seeing the conversation change here in the South about the Child Tax Credit, but I’m not going to let us just give that narrative to the south because I think that it’s a nationwide narrative. If it wasn’t a nationwide narrative, we would have permanency.
What about Medicaid expansion and that whole debate in Mississippi? Is that anything moving there?
I think the issue with all of these pieces, whether it’s Medicaid expansion or CTC expansion or unemployment benefits. Is that we have got to stop allowing states so much control to make decisions that harm the collective all of us. Mississippi is one of the poorest states in this country. We have some of the worst health outcomes as it relates to diabetes, mental health, maternal health, child health and we don’t have Medicaid expansion. How is that? How are we allowed to make that decision? Because that decision impacts collectively all of us, it’s not just impacting us down here in Mississippi. It’s not just impacting us in the South. It impacts the entire country. So we don’t have Medicaid expansion. Will we ever receive at expansion? At the height of the pandemic, when Delta was ravishing us down here, we didn’t have Medicaid expansion. And our governor decided that he was not going to continue to expand the unemployment benefits because he felt like those people had too much and they should go back to work. And so, that means that those of us who are in these conservative states are going to have to do a better job of providing advocacy and political education and movement building.
For the first time this year, our families finally began to connect the dots between systems change and policy and their day-to-day lives. And they didn’t like it. And I think that’s the case for so many of the individuals this year, but what do we do with that momentum? For those of us who are on the frontline community, what is our collective responsibility to make sure that we are educating individuals on their role? That is with policy advocacy and movement building training. We have got to make sure that as individuals are starting to connect the dots between policy and their lives, that they are actually positioned to affect change. And that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of feeding into someone and providing them with the supports necessary.
Is there a particular policy that has helped people draw the connection that you’re talking about?
I don’t know if there’s a policy that’s helped folks draw the connection that I’m talking about. I think the child tax credit policy is most relevant as it relates to families having the financial resources to make the decisions for themselves and their families. But even with that, I do think there is still a lot of hesitancy from families; why should we actually believe this thing is happening? And unfortunately, a lot of the hesitation and criticism that families had is bearing out because we still don’t know what’s happening with the child tax credit. And here we are with months’ worth of data nationwide showing the impact that these resources have had on families and stabilizing so many families who would’ve fallen under and been devastated.