Moving Nashville Forward will pilot the city’s first guaranteed basic income experiment in 37208. It announced the project last month and aims to send out ten monthly distributions of $1000 to 100 families starting in November, meant to directly address poverty while generating data about community wellbeing. 

The project will focus on the zip code that encompasses the five-square-mile heart of North Nashville that is home to nearly 20,000 people. Census data estimates that 37208 is 70% Black—the city as a whole is 70% White—and has a poverty rate double Nashville’s average. The project’s organizers see a guaranteed income pilot as a project of both research and historical redress.

Moving Nashville Forward anchors its 37208 Demonstration with a simple premise: get money to people who need it. The project grew from the tornado recovery efforts of Gideon’s Army, a local community organization, and is backed by Dr. Stacia West, one of the nation’s leading guaranteed income researchers.

“It’s not a silver bullet or a panacea,” West told The Lookout a few weeks after the project’s official launch in March. “It’s one tool in the toolkit that should not replace the social safety net, it should work in complement to it, because the social safety net we have right now is so deeply broken and porous.”

Jamel Campbell-Gooch, a community organizer with Gideon’s Army who grew up in 37208, and Read Ezell, a student at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management from West Nashville, started thinking about a guaranteed income pilot while witnessing the drawbacks of existing aid systems during tornado recovery. They contacted West, then living in East Nashville and teaching at the University of Tennessee’s College of Social Work, about the potential of a pilot program.

  If you're hustling and bustling daily with three different jobs to get your basic needs met, people don't have time to wade through the red tape (of government programs.) They're trying to take their kids to school and put some food on the table.   – Jamel Campbell-Gooch

Campbell-Gooch and Ezell see unconditional cash transfers as powerful poverty-reduction tools. Current support programs like WIC, SNAP, and TANF tie up users in paperwork and subject people living in poverty to paternalistic oversight and means-testing. Guaranteed basic income offers a consistent stopgap, complementing existing safety nets and shoring up income volatility to help residents break cycles of poverty. Campbell-Gooch expounded on the argument for a guaranteed income in a Tennessean op-ed last month.

“If you’re hustling and bustling daily with three different jobs to get your basic needs met, people don’t have time to wade through the red tape,” said Campbell-Gooch. “They’re trying to take their kids to school and put some food on the table. What a basic income does is it simplifies all of those things down and it radically trusts people to get their needs met and restore their own dignity.”

 In addition to thousands of families, much of the city’s civil rights history and three of its four HBCUs are in 37208. The zip code bears the community scars of aggressive policing and the War on Drugs, topping a 2018 Brookings list of zip codes most affected by mass incarceration. Decades ago, outright racist city planning and redlining stunted intergenerational wealth-building. The construction of I-40 cost North Nashville hundreds of homes, businesses, and churches, isolating the city geographically and economically.

Jamel Campbell-Gooch and Read Ezell of Moving Nashville Forward outside (Photo: John Partipilo)
Jamel Campbell-Gooch and Read Ezell of Moving Nashville Forward outside (Photo: John Partipilo)

“A piece of this narrative is definitely bringing up a wound that has been ignored,” said Campbell-Gooch. While it acknowledges economic and historical context, Moving Nashville Forward puts its focus on the future: “The people are going to be the ones to lead the solution.”

Right now, Moving Nashville Forward is raising the money necessary to start distributions. Money will go out to as many families as possible even if the entire sum—a bit north of $1 million, including administrative costs—isn’t raised by September. They passed the $50,000 mark about three weeks into fundraising.

So far, funding has come from private donors, a few stimulus checks, and grassroots fundraisers. Ezell and Campbell-Gooch take every opportunity to emphasize the pilot’s focus on community involvement, which they say sets it apart from grant- and foundation-backed pilots across the country. West, too, cited community buy-in as a particular draw for this project.

“One of the things I love is that they are so grassroots and community-based,” said West. “ With 37208, they have been so clear about it from the beginning in building a program that will speak specifically to the community.”

In September—or earlier, if the money comes together—applications will open to Nashvillians who meet two criteria: First, residence in 37208. Second, a household income less than $40,000. This would qualify about half of 37208 households, according to census data that puts the zip’s median household income at $39,964. The project includes a control group, against which West and her colleagues will measure the impact of monthly payments on mental health, physical health, and a variety of other quality-of-life metrics.

Guaranteed income has quickly established a foothold in mainstream policy conversation over the past few years. Campbell-Gooch and West cite the fires in Sevier County in 2016, and Dolly Parton’s millions in direct cash aid, as formative for their thinking about guaranteed income. It also revealed a double-standard, when compared to racist stereotypes about government aid and social programs.

“What I struggled with specifically was the racial overtones of a fire happening in the majority white area of Sevier County, and people essentially just trusting them with cash,” remembers Campbell-Gooch. 

Since then, Universal Basic Income has been called for explicitly by the Movement for Black Lives and anchored the platform of a top candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 2020. The 37208 Demonstration would be the latest in a flurry of guaranteed income experiments and will be backed by the academic firepower of the brand-new Center for Guaranteed Income Research at the University of Pennsylvania, headed up by West, who recently moved to Philadelphia.

The Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), also headed up by West, distributed $500 a month to 125 families for 24 months. Unlike the 37208 Demonstration, SEED was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and backed by the mayor’s office. The last checks went out in January, 2021, and SEED released its first-year findings in March. Initial research from Stockton details improvements in mental and physical health, employment, and relationships. Money went to food, utilities, rent, and transportation, basic needs whose costs are collectively referred to as an income floor. Recipients reported taking risks they wouldn’t have otherwise, like furthering their education or leaving an unhealthy relationship. Less than 1% of reported spending went to tobacco and alcohol. 

Like most social welfare programs, guaranteed income generates fierce opposition, many based rooted in racism. West regularly receives threats and hate speech: “My email is not public, and the provost has to look through my emails before they’re sent to me.”

On the left, critics worry guaranteed income would prop up a structurally deficient economy and paper over deeper problems that lead to historic inequality. It might also justify gutting social programs and put families directly at the mercy of whatever party holds power in any given moment.

Guaranteed income has quickly established a foothold in mainstream policy conversation over the past few years. Locally, Dolly Parton infused millions of dollars in direct cash aid to residents of Sevier County displaced by fires in 2016. 

On the right, unconditional cash transfers epitomize economic aid programs. Reagan-era talking points about bootstraps economics, government handouts, and self-sufficiency haunt discussions about social welfare like ghosts. COVID-19 demonstrated that this opposition was not about ideology, but about who gets cash transfers and why. When unemployment spiked last spring, GOP Senators Mitt Romney, Tom Cotton, and Josh Hawley publicly fought for cash transfers when economic precarity appeared to threaten Americans who were used to getting paychecks.

“Our country is willing to continue to exploit women and people of color, and as soon as something happens to middle class white people, we suddenly care,” said West, regarding public sentiment. “I do think about this work in terms of racial, economic, and gender-based justice.”

The 37208 Demonstration, like dozens sprouting up across the country, will employ new tactics to generate new evidence about poverty reduction. Organizers intend for that evidence to help policymakers and the public better understand the effect of guaranteed income, in North Nashville and across the city. 

“We’ve been trying to solve poverty the same way and data shows that it’s not working,” said Ezell. “If we’re serious about solving a problem that’s been present in our community for everyone’s lifetime, we need to be willing to try new tactics.”