Adrian Perkins still remembers the feeling of not having enough. How it feels to gargle water dashed with salt and pepper instead of visiting a doctor for a sore throat. How his feet would dangle from the chairs in the building where his mother worked a second job cleaning offices after he finished school. If she wasn’t working another job, she was attending night classes, and her busy schedule meant little time for help with homework or planned meals.
“We had ‘wish sandwiches.’ Just a piece of bread, and you’d wish you had some meat on it,” Perkins said with a chuckle.
But Perkins also remembers what the extra income from his mother’s second job — and later a second marriage — provided for their family. She was eventually able to buy a car, which allowed Perkins to stay at school later. He used that flexibility to become captain of the track team and class president, accolades he parlayed into a West Point nomination.
Now Perkins is the mayor of his hometown of Shreveport, La., an accomplishment he sees as an example of how financial security can change the narrative in a parish that, like so many Southern counties, has seen poverty rates over 20% for three decades.
It’s an experience he’s drawing on as one of five Southern mayors — along with Steve Benjamin in Columbia, S.C., Chokwe Antar Lumumba in Jackson, Miss., Keisha Lance Bottoms in Atlanta, and LaToya Cantrell in New Orleans — who this year agreed to support local guaranteed income programs, a potential solution to cyclical poverty in a region where inequalities have long been entrenched.
“I understand the working poor and what they’re going through,” Perkins said. “If you’re working 40 hours a week, you’re doing what you’re supposed to do to take care of your family. The fact that you’re not making enough money to survive, that’s not your fault. That’s a fundamental flaw in the economy.”
INTERRUPT THE CYCLE OF POVERTY
Guaranteed income is a monthly, no-strings-attached cash payment intended to provide financial stability for those who don’t earn enough to meet basic needs.
The efforts by Lumumba, Perkins, Benjamin, Bottoms and Cantrell are supported by the Mayors for Guaranteed Income coalition — a national coalition of 25 mayors founded by Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton, Calif. In part, it’s a response to mounting social and economic unrest caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The experimental programs will be funded mostly with private capital.
In 1967, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. touted guaranteed income as “the most effective” method of eradicating poverty. The civil rights leader called it a “moral obligation” of the nation.
“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age,” King wrote in his 1967 book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”.
More than 50 years later, King’s theory will finally be tested in some of the states where he fought injustices.
Benjamin, the first of the five to reveal a city-led guaranteed income program plan, said the city will use private donations to pay 100 families $500 a month for a year starting at the end of the year.
Specifically, the city will select families from the north side of Columbia, an area Benjamin said has led the state in heart disease and diabetes as well as incarceration.