A4E member Steve Piazza is a writer and poet living in Athens, Georgia with his wife and cat. He is a retired educator who advocates for education, workers’ rights and global welfare. Interested in writing for our blog? Get in touch!
The next Mayor & Commission voting meeting is Tuesday, December 3, at 6 p.m. You can either show up at City Hall, in downtown Athens, to speak on item #18 (the prosperity package) or fill out a comment form ahead of time saying that you support Broderick Flanigan’s proposal for baby bonds. You can also find contact information for the commissioners here.
“You get into a dangerous space when you calibrate uplift by charity because you’re giving from a place of your comfort, from your excess, and that’s not always sufficient.”
According to the Urban Institute, the median wealth for young white Americans is $46,000, while that for African Americans is only $2,900. This disparity is even greater when you consider that, again in median terms, the former ends up in retirement with $157,884, while the latter, if they’re even able to leave the workforce at retirement age, might have $25,212.
Living in poverty, of course, consists of much more than numbers. When people are uncertain about where their next meal might come from, most likely they are not continually fixated on a statistic that shows another group of people making 15 times more money than they do or the best method to determine the size of that wealth gap.
History is full of instances in which government initiated solutions to reduce the size of the wealth gap in order to provide people with the resources they need. In this country, the Great Depression made it impossible for usually reliable local support groups to continue to serve those in need, necessitating federal relief in the form of New Deal programs and eventually through Social Security. The 1960s brought President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Program, which was responsible for even more targeted poverty reduction programs. Present-day programs like Medicaid and Medicare, Head Start, SNAP and Job Corps all have their roots in government efforts started in the 1960s.
But even that most recent war on poverty–although it arguably has made a difference in so many peoples’ lives–is still far from enough. Many have argued that extending government resources has only made many people more dependent on government. Others have championed the value it brings in the form of a safety net for millions of Americans in need. These arguments hardly do justice to the harsh realities many people face; instead, they focus mainly on what is rather than what ought to be. As a result, the call for alternatives has risen and given way to numerous practical ideas that attempt to concentrate holistically, or, in other words, on the lifetime of the individual.
One such idea is that of baby bonds. In effect, a baby bond is a trust account that starts when a baby is born into poverty and stays with them while the account grows over time so that at a certain age they have access to financial assets, which they can use for education, housing or to start a business. By some calculations, baby bonds can dramatically reduce the wealth gap, from a ratio of 15:1 down to as much as 4:1. That’s a start.
Baby bonds have suddenly become a serious topic that has spawned a national conversation, encouraged most recently by Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker’s platform, which calls for $1,000 to be used to open the account when a child is born into a family whose income is below the poverty level, and possibly even more depending on how far below $25,750 (the 2019 “guideline” for a family of four) they find themselves.
Senator Booker’s idea is nothing new. The idea surfaced most memorably in 2001 during English Prime Minister Tony Blair’s campaign. Since then, other U.S. presidential candidates have put forth their own version. For example, Hillary Clinton floated the idea of providing $5,000 at birth at the beginning of her failed 2008 presidential bid.
But baby bonds are not just an idea used as platform material for political candidates. It’s a concept actually grounded in serious economic research, most notably by the work of economists William A. Darity, Jr. (Duke University) and Darrick Hamilton (Ohio State University). Both have spent their careers studying poverty issues and are recognized as field leaders exploring policy solutions to problems of inequality, including those contributing to the wealth gap.
The idea of baby bonds is also gathering momentum in Athens, too, due largely to the efforts of local artist and activist Broderick Flanigan.
Broderick Flanigan, who encourages people to “Spread Love,” has been making a contribution in Athens for some time. A native Athenian, Flanigan has worked in the past as a mentor for the Clarke County Mentor Program. Today, he works out of his East Athens art studio, Flanigan’s Portrait Studio, where he invites students in after school to make art. His efforts to provide young people an opportunity to develop the artistic side of themselves offers them personal developmental experiences they may not customarily receive.
What follows are highlights from a recent interview with Flanigan in his studio, where he answered questions about his lead in the effort to work with the Athens community and government officials to establish trust funds using the baby bonds concept for children and families in need.
Q. Is your proposal for baby bonds independent of Cory’ Booker’s proposal?
A. Yes, it will be independent of what Cory Booker proposes for his presidential platform. It is similar in some ways, though. It will close that wealth gap that you see in America between the haves and the have nots.
Q. Are you facilitating this independently, or are you working with a local group?
A. I’m working with a small group of people from Oconee Street United Methodist Church; they have a racial justice task force there to support some of the initiatives that I bring to them. There’s one other organization that I can mention: the Georgia Institute for Transitional Justice. They’ve been key in getting some other data and doing that portion of the research. Another group that we’re seeking potential partnership with is the East Athens Development Corporation.
Q. Will you be seeking private donations?
A. We will eventually be seeking money outside of our local government. We want to get a pilot project started with some prosperity funds that they’ve put aside, about $4 million. We want to petition our local government to use it to start us off, and then potentially work with the grant coordinators that they hire to seek outside funds or even do a campaign of private donors to make the fund more robust, a public-private partnership type thing.
Q. Have you seen other communities doing this with some sort of success, or is this something new and influenced more by what’s been getting a lot of attention in the national news lately?
A. Darrick Hamilton and William Darity, two professors, have come up with their own ideas about baby bonds. According to how they propose it, it will be completely new. The only thing that it is likened to it are child savings accounts or IDAs (Individual Development Accounts). In one of the videos I watched recently, Hamilton rejects the notion by some critics that baby bonds are child savings accounts on steroids. Child savings accounts encourage families to save and then they usually do a match and it grows over time. But this is just a straight cash injection for the family to use to build assets. The money never goes directly to the individual. So they can use the funds for a home down payment, to start a business if they have a reliable plan that they can produce and show they have the capacity to carry out that plan, or for potentially furthering their education so that they can better their position for a job, whether it would be a welding class or a truck driving school. But it doesn’t have to be vocational. If somebody wanted to go to school like at Athens Tech or something like that, some of the funds could be used for that. If they want to pursue a certified nursing assistant or one of those types of programs, they could use the funds to put toward that. It will give people autonomy that best fits their situation.
Q. So the cash flow would then go through the organizations rather than the individuals?
A. Exactly. The cash flow would go through what’s held in the trust by the institution on behalf of the individual they were trying to grow the asset for.
Q. And that could change over time if the individual’s goals or priorities change by they’re time they’re, say, 18?
A. 18 or 21. We haven’t yet nailed down that language yet. Of course, 18 if they wanted to do the schooling, but we’re having a discussion on whether a 21-year-old will be ready to start a business or whether a 21-year-old is ready to handle putting a down payment on a house. While we’re working on this program, there are different variations that we are wanting to explore to make sure it is viable. So instead of looking at it from children who are at birth, maybe looking at it as a tiered type program. We’re working with high school students living in poverty because it would have more of an impact and you can track them more readily because they’re already at that age. Maybe starting with some of those students who are at that age and then in subsequent years putting aside money for birth to 5-year-olds who are living in public housing, for instance.
High school students would start with a smaller amount. So if we look at our pilot program, we’re looking at District 2 and District 9. We put the income restrictions on there for a small subset of people, and looking at the high school students using those parameters we will see each one graduating will get, say, $2,000 or $5,000 or however much money we get allocated. You know, we will try to stretch the pilot as far as possible. I want it to be a substantial amount. At least $5,000 for each graduating senior to be able to use those funds to further their education or maybe they can find a match. Perhaps somebody else might want to put up another $5,000 to help them get a down payment on a home or something like that.
So, their amount might not be as much as someone coming in the program in that 0-to-5-years-old age group because that would be able to grow over the years while they are maturing. They would have the benefit of having part of the program when they reach a certain age, though they would have to take financial literacy courses. Financial literacy, though, is not the same when you don’t have the finances to try some type of opportunity. We can couple this program with some programs already happening in the community, like the Great Promise Partnership at the Career Academy, where they pair high school students with local institutions that offer them job experience and job training. It just might get them to thinking instead of saying that my life is hopeless, I don’t have anything for me, I can’t save money, my family doesn’t have any money, or where are opportunities for me. It kind of gives them a different outlook.
Q. There seems to be a debate about how you measure the wealth gap. What data would you use to determine the area of need?
A. For me, I would take two approaches. I would look at historical data. But not just from one lens. I would look at programs under things like the New Deal and how they instituted new programs that created new institutions that allowed people to get home loans and what they did for families over time. But then also look at who is excluded from participating in those programs. Then we also look at markers like unemployment across the city. Even breaking it down by race again, unemployment is usually higher, and for that same population, incarceration rates are higher. We also look at wage stagnation. Wages across the board are abysmal here in Athens, and that’s why we have such a high poverty rate because we have a lot of people working in a low unemployment rate but they’re not taking home much money.
Q. What happens to your program if Cory Booker becomes president and puts his baby bonds program in place nationally? Would this plan be an addition to it, or would it be replaced?
A. I haven’t really been paying attention to that level of politics as of late, to be honest. If Booker does have a shot and is able to get some sort of a program like this started at the federal level, if done correctly, then we won’t need our program because then it would just be a duplication of services. Even if he does a whole blanket like every child born in America gets something, tiered or stratified for poor families so they get substantially more, it’s not really a concern. I would love to see that happen. Love to see a federal program laid out speak to what we’re talking about today. The chances of that happening in my mind are kind of slim, so that’s why it’s important that I think that we set the tone here in Athens to start a program like this and pilot it and do it right to show the impact it can have. Who knows? Maybe they will take our model and scale it up.
Q. Right now you’re going around educating and getting commitments for support. What is your next step?
A. We have already had conversations with a few of the commissioners. We’ve already gone to the November voting meeting, expressed our interest in submitting a proposal, and we’ve emailed them. Right now we’re doing that educational campaign telling people what baby bonds are, what the potentials a program like this can be, potentials on impact. We also need to reach out to some other stakeholders: institutions like banks. We need to bring a bank to the table, a community-minded bank that wants to take something like this on. Not necessarily for the revenue we can bring in for the bank, but just as a community benefit.
So that’s what we’re looking for, the community benefit partnership through a banking institution, as well as some lawyers who will help us set up the legal language. I spoke to a professor over at the [UGA] law school who’s supposed to be putting out some feelers if anybody at the law school has any trust law experience and can do some pro bono work, like setting up some language of the trust could look like for the nonprofit institution that we work with. All those conversations are forthcoming, but we need people to keep on raising awareness and we need people to email commissioners saying that they support something like this, that they want to see a pilot with some of this prosperity money. And also to petition private donors challenging them to help out with this, showing good stewardship in Athens with charitable contributions.
Q. There seems to be a lot of work that has to be done. What kind of timeline are you looking at?
A. The commission has a retreat coming up in early December to talk about a prosperity package and what some of the plans are. So ideally I would love to get a proposal in front of them by that first week in December so that they can have something to look over and discuss more at length when they’re at the retreat.
Q. Is there a final thought or message you’d like to get out there?
A. Yes. We need people to reach out and show up. It could be whatever you are comfortable with. It doesn’t have to be a public mass demonstration or anything like that, but we need some kind of support, either emailing commissioners or people with deeper pockets or connections to organizations that they feel would be in line with supporting this proposal or program from a grant perspective. Also, we need people to show up at the mayor and commission meetings on behalf of this. We want to try and fill the room in December to get people out to say they support baby bonds. There is a meeting coming up on December 3, just before the retreat. There is an item dealing with baby bonds.
And also tell people to educate themselves. Look up information on the economists William Darity and Darrick Hamilton. They can see that information is not being pulled from nowhere but from these two economic scholars who are doing research in this area. It’s important that we remind people that when we say we want to help people get out of poverty, being very intentional about what that looks like and making sure that it’s just not calibrated by a person’s charity. You get into a dangerous space when you calibrate uplift by charity because you’re giving from a place of your comfort, from your excess, and that’s not always sufficient
We’ve seen how many nonprofits we have operating in this community and it’s not a slight against them; it’s just been proven to be inadequate in getting people out of that situation. We want people to survive, but I want people to be in a position where they can thrive and not have to worry about their bills, food and transportation, simple things that people who are comfortable and stable don’t necessarily have to worry about. I want people to have different worries: how are we going to invest this money to make it grow, how are we going to take care of our families and future generations of our families, how are we going to set aside money for our kids if they want to go to college? Those are the kind of worries I want people to have, not how we are going to eat tomorrow, not what are we going to wear when it gets cold, not where are we going to sleep. Those are legitimate worries, and people have those worries today: but what are we doing to make sure that people don’t continue to have those worries?
That is the message that I want to put out there, and to ask people to fight against the idea that people are undeserving, that poor people don’t know how to manage money or that poor people don’t know what to do when they have an opportunity. Some may fall, but that’s why we are there to help them, to teach them, to guide them, to show them that, hey, this is a better way to go about doing this. What does your family need? Is this the option you want to choose? Let’s help you reach that goal.
I also want to thank everybody who has been supporting this thus far. Just a huge shout out to the people who’re doing the research, doing the work, meeting with myself and others regularly. I just want to show a deep appreciation for them.
For further information, contact Broderick Flanigan at firstname.lastname@example.org