MLK's Atlanta neighborhood trying new way to fight poverty: direct cash payments

old fourth ward
A guaranteed income pilot is launching this spring in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward. (Courtesy Georgia Resilience and Opportunity Fund)

In Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, a $13 million initiative is launching this spring to give cash directly to people in poverty. It’s an idea called guaranteed income. 

Pilots are already underway around the country, but it’s no coincidence this trial is happening in the Old Fourth Ward, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born, preached and is now buried.

“He knew our civic rights were hollow if we don’t also have economic rights to back those up, so among the reforms he advocated for was a guaranteed income,” says Hope Wollensack, executive director of the Georgia Resilience and Opportunity Fund, the group helping run the “In Her Hands” guaranteed income pilot.

The pilot will give hundreds of low-income, Black women in King’s neighborhood cash payments they can use however they want – an average of $850 a month for two years. The organization says 38% of Black women in the Old Fourth Ward live in poverty, markedly higher than other demographics.  

Guaranteed income is a departure from traditional anti-poverty programs, like food stamps. Wollensack says cash allows people to pay off debt, afford a reliable car or consistent childcare.

“Those often with the lowest income are making some of the best financial decisions and that choice and agency component really reflects how we trust people to be experts in their own lives, and our current programs don’t do that,” she says.

The pilot will eventually expand to other communities in Metro Atlanta and rural Georgia. Organizers hope to prove programs like this will help lift people out of poverty. 

Michelle Lockhart is confident it will.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. promoted guaranteed income toward the end of his life. A pilot in Atlanta will launch this spring in the neighborhood where he was born and is now buried. (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

She’s lived in the Old Fourth Ward most of her life. There were times when extra cash would have made a huge difference, like when she lost her job and couldn’t make the car payment.

“The car people kept calling me, ‘We need a payment. We need a payment,” Lockhart said. “And I was like, ‘I’m trying to figure things out.’ And it stressed me out so badly, I remember shaking.”

Atlanta resident Michelle Lockhart says cash payments will help people who are struggling to pay off debt and secure reliable transportation or childcare. (Courtesy Michelle Lockhart)

Lockhart says it’s impossible to start a business or hunt for a better job when you’re struggling just to stay above water.

“The inability to get off the hamster wheel: This kid is sick, so you have to take this kid to the doctor, you have to take off work. And now you’re missing hours and then you’re going to come up short somewhere on some bill because you’re missing days at work,” she says.

Even experts who embrace guaranteed income say it should still be paired with other policies.

Luke Shaefer, who directs the Poverty Solutions program at the University of Michigan, says some traditional programs, like early childhood education, really do work. But he says policymakers need to ask:

“Would people be better off if I just gave them the money I spent on this program or if I gave them this program?”

Shaefer says the pandemic may have eroded some people’s discomfort with giving cash directly to people facing economic hardship. Federal pandemic relief checks and the expanded child tax credit were fairly popular at the height of the pandemic and reduced child poverty.

Though that doesn’t mean lawmakers will race to fund guaranteed income on a big scale. 

Proposals to make the federal expanded child tax credit permanent, for example, are now dead in Congress and support has faded.

“Could it be we had this historic moment, where we took an approach we hadn’t done before, and then afterwards we went back to our old ways?” Shaefer says.

On the patio of Dancing Goats coffee, where lattes cost $5 and there’s a West Elm and a Warby Parker next door, Amir Farokhi says Dr. King’s neighborhood is changing rapidly.  

Farokhi co-chairs the guaranteed income pilot and represents Old Fourth Ward on the Atlanta City Council.

“So you have literally million dollar homes on the same block of subsidized housing built 50 years ago,” he says. “It’s in many ways a reflection of Atlanta writ large.”

Amir Farokhi represents Old Fourth Ward on Atlanta’s City Council. (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

Atlanta ranks among the top cities for income inequality in the country. A smaller pilot through the city of Atlanta is also launching soon, but attracting state support to expand this no-strings program would be an uphill climb. 

In Georgia, Republicans have touted work requirements, even for benefits like Medicaid. For now, this pilot is funded by philanthropic dollars. But Farokhi says public servants have to do more to address poverty.

“Whether you’re working a 200K a year job or 30K a year job, there should be a place for you in this neighborhood and this city,” he says.

This spring, Farokhi and others hope they’ll start chipping away at the inequities Dr. King preached about in this city more than half a century ago.