A Guaranteed Income for the Indispensable

I have been listening to a lot of music during the pandemic, trying to make sense of our world. A global pandemic, raging fires, voter suppression, a recall election, and refugee crises are but a few of what’s top of mind.

There’s one song called “Sueño con Serpientes”—by the Cuban musician and poet Silvio Rodríguez—that uses powerful metaphors that I think speak to what we are going through today.

Silvio wrote this song in 1975 from a nightmare where he battles translucent serpents with a hydra-like tendency. Every time he slays one snake, another larger one appears.

Sound familiar? I replay the song in the midst of yet another COVID-19 surge. Months ago, we were beating the virus until the Delta variant appeared. The light at the end of the tunnel was within sight! Now, we’re in the thick of the pandemic again. But all hope is not lost for, as the song goes, Silvio defeats the larger serpent when he proclaims un verso, una verdad.

I know. It’s soothing to think that proclaiming one’s truth alone can defeat the mightiest of serpents, or whatever monsters or pandemics we’re fighting against. Truth, it turns out, is necessary to strengthen our conviction but it takes a lot more to be a hero. Silvio hints at what that is by reciting this Bertolt Brecht poem at the beginning of the song:

“There are people who fight for a day, and they are good.
There are others who fight for a year, and they are better.
There are those who fight for many years, and they are better still.
But there are those who fight all their lives: these are the indispensable ones.”

Victory is not assured by winning one battle alone. It takes real work over time to be a real hero—making those that fight day in and day out, over years, and throughout their lifetimes, as the poem states, indispensable. 

In our world today, I think of essential workers as the indispensable ones, the real heroes.

Think about it. Even before the COVID-19 vaccines were widely available, essential workers showed up to work in agricultural fields, in food processing plants, and in restaurants when we most needed them. They showed up to work, risking their lives to keep our society going. Without immigrant labor, our food supply chain would have crumbled, causing untold panic and harm in society. 

The same cannot be said of everyone. Our federal government did not show up for immigrant families, instead ignoring their struggles as families lost income, depleted savings, and amassed debts. They excluded immigrant families from receiving relief that could have helped them stay current with bills and pay rent to stay housed. 

Seeing the injustice of excluding immigrant families from relief, our neighbors stepped up to lend a hand.

MAF raised $55M to provide 63,000+ grants to help undocumented families, workers, and students cover basic and immediate needs. But as we wind down our rapid response grants program, we know it was clearly not enough. The need was immense and intense. COVID-19 devastated the financial lives of families, and it will take them years to recover. 

We are ready to do more. At MAF we are moving from rapid response grants to providing long term support to families with children who are now excluded from receiving the expanded Child Tax Credit. Over one million immigrant children without Social Security numbers are not getting support. We are launching MAF’s Immigrant Families Recovery Fund with $25M seed funding to provide immigrant families a guaranteed income of $300 per month for up to two years. Participants will receive direct cash, intensive financial coaching, self-advocacy training, and access to MAF’s suite of credit building and zero interest loans to help rebuild their financial lives faster. 

At MAF, we’re bringing all that we have to bear in the fight against poverty, just as essential workers did in the midst of the global pandemic.

And we want to do better. We plan to evaluate, study, and share what we learn from their recovery journey to inform and inspire policy solutions for meaningful systems change. 

Listening to Silvio’s music makes me appreciate the fact that, whether we’re slaying translucent serpents or battling fires or fighting poverty, it takes real conviction and hard work over a lifetime to ensure any victory. 

This has never been a one-time fight for us, but the fight for our lives. That’s our truth. 

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