Board receives briefing on first-year success of Multnomah Mothers' Trust Project

November 3, 2022

Nearly 100 Black mothers are receiving basic income thanks to a new County program known as the Multnomah Mothers’ Trust Project. On Tuesday, Nov. 1, project leaders briefed the Board of Commissioners on the impact from the program’s first year.

The program serves approximately 100 Black female-headed households with children currently receiving services through the Black Parent Initiative or WomenFirst programs. Families receive an unconditional, basic income of about $500 per month.

(Left to right): Ebonee Bell, Bahia Overton, Shannon Olive, and Mary Li brief the Board on the Multnomah Mothers Trust Project

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for programs like Multnomah Mothers’ Trust Project. The pandemic’s disproportionate economic impact on Black households worsened already-existing racial wealth gaps. The goal of the program, launched by the Multnomah Idea Lab, is to bring long-term stability to Black mothers and their families. A second phase of the program is set to start Monday, Nov. 7.

“When I think about what Multnomah Mothers’ Trust Project is and can be, I think about well-being for African American people, specifically for African American women,” said Ebonee Bell, who coordinates the program.

National and international research show that strategies such as unconditional cash transfers, basic income, debt reduction, and asset building can be effective in reducing the racial wealth gap. Program leaders say that when anti-poverty programs trust people living on a low-income to know what they need — and those programs provide direct, unconditional access to financial resources — program participants experience improvements in their quality of life, their economic stability, and their children’s educational success. 

One example is Baby’s First Years, a randomized-control study measuring the benefits  of poverty reduction on family life, and on infants’ and toddlers’ cognitive, emotional and brain development. The expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, another proxy for unconditional cash transfers, has also resulted in a 30% decrease in child poverty nationwide. Seventy-two percent of participants reported an increase in well-being, and all participants reported spending their money on basic necessities. 

“In giving people unrestricted income, we are giving back power, sovereignty and autonomy for people to be able to make decisions about themselves, to be treated as adults in a way that government and society at large has taken that away,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said.

The Multnomah Mothers’ Trust Project began by recruiting 100 participants from the Black Parent Initiative and WomenFirst programs. Earlier this year, the program began distributing $500 monthly payments and kept records on how the money was spent. Participants who provided monthly information about their economic state received an additional $50 per month.

“From our perspective, it’s investing a County resource and a public dollar that’s bringing back two-fold benefit: both the immediate ban of the basic needs and the debt reduction, and as the other collateral benefits that are the long-term benefits,” said Mary Li, who directs the Multnomah Idea Lab.

Bahia Overton, executive director for the Black Parent Initiative, said she was initially skeptical. 

“I said, ‘This sounds like a set-up,’” she said. “‘Why are we getting unrestricted funds? And are they going to say these poor Black people can’t get it together? How is this going to shake out?’”

After learning more about the program model, she elected to move forward with the project. She let all the participants know that the money was unrestricted. She also made sure everyone knew about Black Parent Initiative’s financial literacy classes, which 90 percent of the mothers chose to join.

Program managers said participants used the funds to cover utilities, medical issues and other family emergencies, tuition for their children, rent payments, late utilities, unexpected car repairs, and even throwing a birthday party for their child. 

One participant used the funds to help buy a home. Another purchased her first washer and dryer. Not having to make any more special trips to the laundromat created balance for her, Overton said, which led to more family stability.

“All the moms have talked about how grateful they are to have that cushion, that it’s meant everything to them,” Overton said. “It’s made a huge difference.”

Shannon Olive, executive director for WomenFirst, also said she was skeptical at first. She wasn’t sure whether the program was actually unconditional, or if there would be a catch. But after learning more, she wants to see it replicated across Multnomah County. 

Most of WomenFirst’s participants are transitioning out of prison, in recovery from addiction, or recovering from other trauma. Olive believed that they would benefit from unrestricted funds by regaining some stability in their lives.

Throughout the program, WomenFirst surveyed the participants on how they were using the funds. All of the participants either started or added to emergency funds. Some paid for rent, utilities or other bills. Others paid for childcare, extracurricular programming, and other important activities for their children.

“All of our participants have benefited greatly from this program,” Olive said. “We at WomenFirst will continue to advocate for the well-being and success of our participants, and we hope you will continue to listen and help continue to meet the needs of our women.”

Phase two of the project starts Nov. 7. Program leaders will add programming focused on homeownership and debt reduction. In the coming weeks, a cohort of women will working to design a program to help people navigate the homeownership process.

“I just want to say how proud I am of Multnomah County always being on the cutting edge of doing things outside of the box,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. “You all are perfect examples of that.”

Program leaders have chosen the participants for the next program. The Multnomah Mothers’ Trust Project also hopes to enroll more Black families and create access for Indigenous and Pacific Islander participants.

In the long term, the program hopes to scale up by at least 100 participants. Philanthropic organizations have also expressed interest in getting involved, especially with asset building. Commissioners said they supported work to find additional  funding streams. 

“These strategies are core Multnomah County strategies,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said. “Over time, building them into strategies that are supported by the General Fund is something that I would be very supportive of.”

Commissioner Sharon Meieran echoed her support. “I absolutely agree this ties into our core mission as the County and want to see how we are able to sustain this work. because that predictability is really key,” she said.