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A guaranteed income program in rural Georgia hopes to reduce income inequality

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Guaranteed income programs are becoming more common across the U.S. These temporary programs are largely being championed by progressive, big-city mayors. The hope is giving hundreds of dollars a month to people struggling financially will help reduce income inequality. For the Gulf States Newsroom, Stephan Bisaha and Aubri Juhasz report on a new program in Georgia that's trying to reach people outside those big cities.

AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: Drive about 2 1/2 hours south from Atlanta and you'll end up in the rural town of Cuthbert, Ga.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: People here say it's a nice, quiet place to retire. It's also in one of the poorest parts of the state. The county's poverty rate is more than twice Georgia's, a state already known for high poverty.

JUHASZ: Which is why Tanika Acosta is standing outside the local Dollar General. She's an outsider with a flier. She's got a pitch that's hard to ignore.

TANIKA ACOSTA: Eight hundred and fifty dollars - no strings attached, though, ma'am. Can I explain that to you? And that kind of makes them say, OK, what's she talking about?

BISAHA: Acosta is getting people to sign up for In Her Hands. It's a guaranteed income program that will give hundreds of low-income women in Georgia $850 a month for two years. Women, especially Black women, face higher rates of poverty than men, so this program's hoping to address that. Word spreads fast here, so most of the women Acosta talks to have already heard of the program, including Juandolyn Blackmon. Acosta helps Blackmon complete her application.

ACOSTA: All done. Now, you will receive an email. There's it already coming. Now you're just waiting.

JUANDOLYN BLACKMON: OK.

ACOSTA: You're all set.

BLACKMON: Thank you so much.

ACOSTA: Of course. Of course.

BISAHA: Aubri, there are dozens of cities trying to build the political will to make a guaranteed income federal policy. And they're doing that by running pilots in their own cities.

JUHASZ: Right. And while In Her Hands is doing that in Atlanta, they're also taking the unusual step of giving money to people in three rural counties here in southwest Georgia.

BISAHA: Now, it's a lot cheaper living in a rural area like Cuthbert than Atlanta, but people in Atlanta often have access to a lot more help. Blackmon says there also aren't many jobs here where you can make...

BLACKMON: Good money. And down here it is - it's no job. And if it is a job, you ain't making that much of money.

BISAHA: Logging used to be the big industry here decades ago, but not anymore. Lots of people who grew up here either leave for better jobs elsewhere or they come back once they retire. Turns out, if you're going to do a rural guaranteed income, you're probably going to end up giving a lot of money to retirees who are struggling to get by on Social Security.

JUHASZ: Yeah, like grandmother Everene Evans. She got the pitch for the program at the grocery store.

EVERENE EVANS: Yeah, when she said $850, I said wow.

JUHASZ: Evans, who is 78 years old, knew she wanted to apply but wasn't sure how to complete the online application. So on a hot June day, she walks into the local technical college to get some help from In Her Hands staff.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I love your dress.

EVANS: Why, thank you. I'm trying to keep cool.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right, same.

EVANS: Same.

JUHASZ: The people running this pilot say there are over 300 studies, many overseas, showing cash payments are a big help for people's mental health as well as their wallets.

BISAHA: But some new studies aren't so positive. In 2020, Harvard University researchers gave people living in poverty $2,000, and the researchers say they didn't see those same benefits. In fact, some people did worse financially and mentally after getting the cash.

JUHASZ: But the researchers say that's probably because it wasn't enough money to make a meaningful difference. The Georgia program is giving people a lot more money - not $2,000, but $20,000 over the next two years. Hope Wollensack leads the Georgia Resilience and Opportunity Fund, which runs the pilot. She says that $20,000 is probably just the baseline of what's needed.

HOPE WOLLENSACK: We heard from women that they would probably spend just the first 5 to 6 months getting their head above water, whether that was catching up on their bills, paying down debt.

JUHASZ: Everene Evans says she plans on saving the money for hard times, which to some extent have already arrived with high inflation. Her only source of income is her Social Security check.

So this would bump it up a lot, to have $850 in addition to having Social Security.

EVANS: You're going to make me do a dance. I sure hope they pull my name, Jesus.

JUHASZ: The application for In Her Hands rural pilot closed in late June, and program leaders are onboarding participants so they can start receiving their guaranteed income soon.

BISAHA: For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha.

JUHASZ: And I'm Aubri Juhasz in Cuthbert, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Stephan Bisaha
Aubri Juhasz
Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.
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