Episode 204: A Tale of Two Cities: Poverty in ATL and NYC | Hope Wollensack and Sophie Collyer Discuss

Guaranteed Income in Dr. King’s Childhood Community

Our hosts Jeff and Carol talk to Hope Wollensack and The Growth Fund. This $30 million privately raised fund offers cash to moms in need in Atlanta.

For two to three years, recipients will get between $850 and $1,000 per month in cash. This program is named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s writing on gauranteed income in his last published book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

“The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement.”

In his honor, this program is called In Her Hands, as they focus on serving mothers in the Atlanta area.

Economic Stimulus Checks May Have Moved the Needle on Guaranteed Income Programs

Programs like these are relatively new in the United States, and Hope finds it reasonable that people have questions. The data bears out the success of these programs, but people may have really learned from their own experience.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people in the US received stimulus checks from the federal government, and during that time, folks opened up to the idea that “cash is effective.”

xx thinks so too — see Episode xx for more details on her work with GBI with xxorgxx

Eligibility for the Program

Hope explains that the program has a 15-minute application, which you can find here.

Are you:

  • A self-identified woman over 18 years of age?
  • Living within the specific geography of the program?
  • Living on 200% of the federal poverty level or lower?

While this could be up to $51,000 in income for a woman with two children, the average income in the program is $14,000, since the program is centered on areas with high concentrations of poverty and financial need.

Moving into the Future

Since this is a time-bound program, Hope explains how they offboard recipients in the last 12 to 6 months. In addition to cash in hand, they also provide planning, goal-setting, and educational resources for recipients to access if they’re able and interested.

As an educator, Hope realized that by the time she was seeing children in the classroom, it was too late. So she moved her career to do work to get resources into the right place — In Her Hands.

Child Poverty is Soaring - Sophie Collyer Talks About Studying Poverty in NYC

As director of research at Columbia, Sophie is intimately familiar with the causes of poverty in New York City.. 

They evaluate the effects of public policies and poverty rates over time, and their data shows a sharp increase in both the child and overall poverty rate, due largely to the end of pandemic-era policies. 

In New York City, the child poverty rate is more than double the national average as of the last Census, which is particularly stark when compared to the striking low poverty rates in 2021. 

This study has been measuring poverty for over 10 years in New York City, aiming to get an in-depth look at what contributes to poverty in a place where cost of living is so high.  

Disproportionate Impact on Black and Latinx Children

Structural factors mean that non-white children have almost twice the chance of living in poverty, and under the current Child Tax Credit, many of them are significantly less likely to receive the full CTC as it currently stands. 

The Poverty Threshold in NYC 

Since New York City has such high rates of poverty, it is harder to move the needle on poverty compared to other parts of the country, so it’s critical to focus on how to close that gap.

That’s why Robin Hood takes the results of studies like these and develops a policy agenda based on that data. Focuses include:


  • The Empire State Child Tax Credit
  • Housing affordability
  • Childcare costs

The Invisible Americans Theme Song by Bridget St. Jones

Carol Jenkins  

Hello, and thanks so much for joining us today as we explore a tale of two American cities where child poverty is rampant. In the US South – Atlanta, Georgia – and in the northeast – New York City.

Jeff Madrick  

Our conversations today are with Hope Wollensack, who runs the guaranteed income program for mothers and children, the GRO fund, in Georgia, and Sophie Collyer of Columbia University's Center on Poverty and Social Policy. They've just released a troubling study of the soaring poverty rate in New York City.

Carol Jenkins  

We begin with Hope Wollensack, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Georgia Resilience and Opportunity Fund, or GRO. Its In Her Hands program is the largest guaranteed cash income program in the South. It was created to help Black mothers. It now supports hundreds of women for two years, with substantial monthly checks.

Carol Jenkins:

Hope, thank you so much for being with us today. We're very excited about your program. The numbers are really incredible. Guaranteed income for two years for black women in Georgia. How did you get to the GRO Fund and this project? 

Hope Wollensack: 

I started my career as a fifth grade social studies teacher and assistant principal in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was incredible work, difficult but incredible work. I loved spending those days with young people and just seeing their optimism about the world and their future. There were a wide variety of issues that they may be facing before they even stepped into the door. And really facing extreme levels of poverty and violence, to be honest. 

It did not feel fair that 10-year-olds were facing these circumstances and that somehow it was their individual responsibility or the education system's responsibility to solve for it all. And so I went to graduate school for public policy, came to Georgia to work on a political campaign here, and really got connected with this work on the ground up, organizing and talking to the women within the Old Fourth Qard community that later evolved into the In Her Hands program, and then into the GRO Fund. 

The GRO Fund was started from talking to women and moms in Dr. King's childhood community here in Atlanta, the old Fourth Ward neighborhood. It was part of a task force that was convened by a city council member, Amir Farroki. And that task force asked folks in the community, what do you need for real economic security and eventually economic mobility? 

And in those conversations with mostly moms in the community, what we found is that there was really just not enough cash to make ends meet. Folks were really skilled at stretching, making a dollar out of 15 cents, and yet still it wasn't enough, and that there wasn't enough resources and supports to help get them the cash that they needed to really have the agency to solve for what they knew they needed most. And so the GRO Fund was born out of that work. 

And we now have the In Her Hands Guaranteed Income Program that will serve over 850 women across four communities in Georgia. It's a $30 million project, and folks are enrolled in the program anywhere from two to three years, receiving anywhere from $850 a month to $1,000 a month. So it's been very exciting growth. And an ode to Dr. King, who wrote about guaranteed income in his final book, Chaos or Community, He wrote, the dignity of the individual will flourish when matters concerning his life are in his own hands. And he goes on to talk about guaranteed income. So in honor of his work and his writing on this, we've named the program In Her Hands. 

Jeff Madrick: 

Of course, it's caught on among a number of people, the Guaranteed Income Program. How successful in your application of the idea has it been? 

Hope Wollensack: 

I think it's been tremendously successful in building on a body of literature that really have grown globally over the past 40 years. There's been about 300 guaranteed income or unconditional cash programs globally. In the U.S., we noticed these programs picking up speed in maybe the last five years. And now there have been 200 programs across the country. There are about 100 active right now. 

And what we're seeing from the data is tremendous. Folks are able to solve their own problems if they have the resources to do so, whether that is stabilizing their income for a short period of time and just providing a little bit of breathing room, or giving folks the capacity to think and plan for the future. And so what every individual needs might be different, and the beauty of cash is that it provides the flexibility and agency for individuals to be able to navigate that as they know best. 

Jeff Madrick: 

Was there a lot of resistance to this unconditional cash idea? 

Hope Wollensack: 

I think there can be, and mostly lots of questions. It is unfamiliar, it is a policy mechanism that we don't often use. We often prefer to give people the housing subsidy or the food stamps or something that's in-kind, rental assistance, something that's in-kind in nature, has a really specifically designated use. I think in 2020 and into 2021, when the vast majority of Americans received a stimulus check or maybe experienced the child tax credit, I think we started to see folks open up to the idea of, oh, cash is effective. 

And then we started collecting data from a wide range of folks and seeing that. it doesn't meaningfully drop folks' employment or labor force participation and that people use it, we use it the same way our neighbors would. That folks are using it usually for basic necessities to get caught up on bills and hopefully put away something in savings, which is usually the ultimate measure of someone's financial stability if they're able to save a little bit and if their expenses are lower than their income. 

So we do occasionally run into folks who have questions, you know, how will it be used? Would it be more, would other solutions be more efficient or effective? And so certainly I think it's a new policy area that we're trying here in the U.S., so many of those questions fair. And they do get to kind of the heart of the issue, what is the most direct way and what is the most effective way to solve for poverty? 

Carol Jenkins: 

Oh, Hope, you've come to the right place. This is music to our ears because Jeff, you know, wrote the book, you know – Cash is the answer. It's the solution for children at any rate. But you're talking about $30 million, a $30 million fund. What's the source of that? How do you get something that substantial going? 

Hope Wollensack: 

Yes, it's all been privately raised. So this is foundation and also other types of philanthropy have all contributed to that $30 million. Luckily, we've seen a lot of local support as well as national support. Everything locally from the Arthur Blank Family Foundation to the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, and a few others as well. 

And so I think also philanthropy is excited to explore this question of there have been a variety of solutions over the past two decades. And we have seen child poverty drop substantially over the past 20 years, in large part due to changes in public policy, also the role of philanthropy. And so what role can cash play to also take us sort of that last stretch that seems to be particularly difficult to solve? 

Jeff Madrick: 

Well, congratulations on climbing over the cash obstacle. As most of us know, we've been working on this. Cash has been considered not merely the solution, but the cause of poverty in the 1980s by mostly Republican scholars and Republican policymakers. So we're delighted. We started working on the child allowance. I think I certainly did in 2015. The whole staff here has had something to do with that. We want to help keep it going. So, what can we tell our audience to show how successful your program has been? You mentioned a few things. I'd just like to know what sticks out in your mind. 

Hope Wollensack: 

It is not hard to understand that when parents are more financially secure and they can afford their bills and they aren't moving as frequently, they don't have late fees and are just more financially stable, how that affects kids, how that affects the stress in the home, how that might affect parents' time with kids. Of course, all of that plays out in the data. But then additionally, what we hear and see a lot are the stories of parents who were able to afford a new pair of sneakers for their kids going back to school and how meaningful that was to that kid. 

Or was it able to afford the sports equipment for the kid to participate in an after-school sport that they've always dreamed of? Or was able to afford that summer camp for that young person that was related to their interest. And so when we think about all the measures from sort of financial stability in the home, time with parents, nutrition outcomes, all of those are incredibly important. We see that data not just in our program, but programs across the country in various contexts. 

But there are sort of these intangibles around what makes a happy, healthy childhood. I'm a former educator. As a teacher and assistant principal, but those intangible moments of when you're able to open a Christmas gift of something you've been dreaming about, or you're able to go back to school with the pride of having, you know, sneakers that you really love, or the right jacket that fits you and isn't a couple winters too old, or being able to go to that summer camp, that these are the things when we think about. Not just poverty, but even shifting into well-being are incredibly important and are the things we really hold on to when we want to see a thriving economy. Those things are equally a part of it as just being able to make ends meet. 

Carol Jenkins: 

Sure. If you can tell us what the application process is. I mean, we believe in cash. We believe in the fewer questions, the better. So, how do the women qualify for what is a substantial, not just in the amount of money, but also in the amount of time that they have, two or three years, to gain this security? So, how did you get the first class, for instance, of women who would participate in this? 

Hope Wollensack: 

We have an application that takes about 15 minutes to complete, and we engaged community members in the entire process of both deciding the eligibility criteria, as well as testing the application and making sure it felt like it was asking the right level of questions, just what we needed to know and not overly invasive. 

You have to identify as a woman and be 18 years or older. You have to live within the specified geography. We're very community-focused, so we have four focused communities across the state. And then in terms of income, you have to make at or less than 200% of the federal poverty line. This is really important to us because most public benefits in Georgia cut off at 130% of the federal poverty line. We know folks are struggling even above 100%, above 130, you know, much into what we would consider working class or middle class. So, it's important that we include folks from that population as well. So those are the three eligibility criteria for the program. 

Carol Jenkins: 

And what does that translate into money, that 200%? What are we talking about income? 

Hope Wollensack: 

For a household of one, that's about $30,000 a year. For a household of two, so one adult and one child, that's about $40,000 a year. And then for a household of three, one adult and two children, that's about $51,000 a year. 

Jeff Madrick: 

How many people make $51,000 a year? 

Hope Wollensack: 

Very few.  The average income in our program is about $14,000 a year across our three sites. In part, that's because we're so geography focused. And unfortunately, the areas that we focus on have very high concentrations of poverty. There's a high level of need. It's one of the reasons that they're selected for the program. But we do have a small fraction. It's probably around 5 or 10% that are between the 130% of the federal poverty line to the 200%. 

Carol Jenkins: 

And then at the end of the program, when their time is over, what happens then? Are there supports built into the program? 

Hope Wollensack: 

Yes. We have an off-boarding period, which is about the last year to six months of the program. We certainly wish programs like this could exist in perpetuity and that we could see federal policy around this. But nonetheless, our programs are time-bound in nature. In the last 6 months to year of the program, we start to talk to participants about sort of their plans, goals. As the program ends, we provide programming with partners on a range of topics, everything from money management to breathwork classes to starting a business. 

We know that cash is at the root of the issue and that people may be interested in a wide variety of topics that best meet sort of their needs, and so we try as much as possible to work with expert partners on delivering those services. It's not required, but certainly we want to give folks options should they be interested in that type of information. 

Carol Jenkins: 

And do you have enough runway to know what happens to the women after they leave? You're a fantastic program. 

Hope Wollensack: 

Right now, we just passed the one-year mark, so we don't yet, but we've been learning quite a bit. Luckily, there is a plethora of programs across the country that we've been able to learn from, everything from Magnolia Mothers Project in Jackson, Mississippi, to the Abundant Birth Project in San Francisco, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration. All these programs, luckily, offer lessons on best practices. 

And we do know that the end of the program comes with a bit of anxiety. It is a financial change, which in and of itself can come with a bit of stress. And so we try to think about everything we can do to help ease some of that anxiety and to help folks transition as smoothly as possible, including asking them what would be helpful. 

Jeff Madrick: 

Just anecdotally, did you notice a difference between the kids whose parents got, maybe they didn't get funding yet, of course, when you were a teacher, but kids whose parents got funding and kids who didn't get funding? Maybe this was all before you set your program up. 

Hope Wollensack: 

Right, right. It was before. And then in terms of our program now, we don't interact much with the kids. Families are welcome to bring their children to events and, you know, we'll see kids occasionally, but we don't directly survey the children for a number of reasons. And then we've thought about using administrative data, but that's additionally pretty complicated. 

Carol Jenkins: 

You're based on the, you know, women and mothers know best what they need and how to spend their money. And so, you know, you minimize the intervention during this, you know, during the two-year period that they're getting the subsidy. So, are you optimistic? You know, I mean, we're impressed. I love the story about your being in the classroom. and seeing the kids coming in and realizing, you know, that's too late. So now you're at the beginning of that process. And what are you hoping to see to come out of this project at the end? 

Hope Wollensack: 

Twofold. One is that Even if this program, I think we talk a lot about really measurable outcomes, and I have an economics background, so I care about these things as well. These really measurable outcomes often tied to finances or employment, those things are certainly important because they are really linked in our economy to well-being and being able to afford resources to provide for yourself. 

Certainly, these things are important. But overall well-being being really the key goal, not just sort of the hard financial well-being, but overall well-being. And that takes the form of oftentimes the relationships with your kids, the free time that you have, the choice and agency that you have to sort of self-determine your future, your kid's then ability to do the same. We're talking about, for Black communities in particular, intergenerational poverty. This is restricting the choices, not just of the parent, but the child, the grandchild, all the way down the line. 

And so we think a lot in terms of the success of this program. If 850 families in Georgia had greater access to choice, agency, self-determination, and overall well-being, that would be tremendously successful. And then we think about the impact on public policy. It's been hard work, but a lot of luck, to be honest, on some of the fundraising success of this program. But it does enable us to have a pretty large scale program in the Southeast US, an area with one of the highest poverty rates and childhood poverty rates in the country. 

What can we learn here that can influence public policy in the long term? Where our region has very few state-level EITC programs. We know in Georgia that would help nearly 3 million individuals in the state of Georgia. We know that there's an ongoing conversation around the child tax credit. These programs would be tremendously successful for helping folks get out of poverty and then get towards that overall well-being. 

So, our goal from this program is to generate learnings that can hopefully be insightful for these ongoing public policy conversations, while at the same time ensuring those 850 families that we serve are better off, at least in the short term, and then hopefully in the long term. 

Carol Jenkins: 

Excellent. Well, we wish you the very, very best with this, Hope, and thanks so much for coming. 

Jeff Madrick: 


Hope Wollensack: 

Thank you, and it's really terrific and an honor to be in conversation with you both who have done so much in this field and I think have laid so much of the groundwork for the work that we're seeing today. So really appreciate and honored to be in conversation with both of you all. 

Hope Wollensack

Executive Director | she/her

Hope is the founding Executive Director of the Georgia Resilience & Opportunity Fund. Prior to her current role she served as a senior strategist at the Economic Security Project and led the Old Fourth Ward Economic Security Task Force, a community-driven initiative to examine the root causes of economic insecurity in Atlanta and beyond. Hope was a founding Policy and Advocacy Lead at Fair Fight Action and also served on the political team with the Abrams for Governor Campaign in 2018. As a former teacher and assistant principal in New Orleans, Hope has experience in organizing young people, educators, and the faith community. She earned her Master of Public Affairs from Princeton's School of International and Public Affairs as well as a Bachelor of Arts degree from Tufts University, where she helped found the Africana Studies program.

Sophie Collyer

Research Director at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University

Sophie Collyer is a Research Director at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University. Collyer she works closely with data from the Robin Hood Poverty Tracker to assess the dynamics of poverty and disadvantage in New York City. She also evaluates anti-poverty policies at the national and local level, with a particular interest in tax policy. Collyer holds a dual-degree (MPA/MSW) in Social Policy and Economic Analysis from Columbia.