Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Guaranteed income pilot relieves some financial stress for student parents | Education

Martina, 24, remembers how kind the nurses were when she gave birth to her daughter four years ago.

“You don’t find good care all too often, and when you find someone who cares about you, it makes a huge difference,” she said in a recent interview.

She’d like to be that person for others. For years, Martina has been taking nursing program prerequisites at Santa Fe Community College, slowly moving up in her field as a full-time medical assistant while balancing parenting responsibilities.

On one hand, if Martina gets her nursing degree, she’s looking at a pay increase from her current $18 an hour in Santa Fe to nearly $40 an hour, according to local salary estimates from Indeed.com.

It could change life for her, her husband, their 4-year-old daughter and the 16-year-old nephew they’re caring for in a house they rent on Santa Fe’s south side.

Raised by a single immigrant mother who “always struggled to make ends meet,” Martina — who said she kept a top-notch GPA in high school for her mom’s sake — would also be fulfilling a family dream.

On the other hand, getting there is so costly and time-consuming, she almost had to stop taking classes this year, Martina said.

Martina is one of 100 student parents younger than 30 who earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (less than $50,000 for a family of four) at SFCC who were selected via lottery out of hundreds of applicants to participate in the city of Santa Fe’s guaranteed income pilot and has received $400 each month since September.

Her last name is being withheld to adhere to research requirements set forth by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Guaranteed Income Research, which is studying the pilot program, funded by Mayors for a Guaranteed Income initiative at $500,000.

For Martina’s family, the pilot has put a temporary end to a continual uphill battle balancing late utility payments and making tough decisions between necessities like food ($170 to $300 a week) or child care ($200 a week) and paying for school (up to $1,000 a term).

“I probably wouldn’t be taking classes right now if I was just racking up debt,” she said. “I might not even have a car right now.”

The Institute for Women’s Policy and Research estimated in 2019 that 22 percent of all college students are parents.

Estimates at SFCC are higher — with one survey conducted by the Anna Age Eight institute reporting 36 percent of students on campus have a child younger than 18.

That number likely overlaps with other indicators yielded by the 2021 survey, like the 29 percent of respondents who needed child care services — two-thirds of whom had trouble finding it — or the 34 percent who reported needing food assistance, many who didn’t qualify.

Catron Allred, director of the Early Childhood Center of Excellence at SFCC, said higher education is rarely set up to support parents trying to attain degrees, who she said may not be able to take on as much coursework as traditional students.

Between parenting, working and attending school, “small things can derail that process,” she said.

“School is the first thing you’re able to give up,” Allred added.

Martina has not given up. The student — who attended The MASTERS Program, a dual-credit high school in Santa Fe — has been chipping away at her classes one or two at a time since high school graduation, mostly online, save one term when her daughter was born.

Yash Morimoto, vice president for strategy and organizational effectiveness at SFCC, estimates 75 percent of students at SFCC are part time — and said it can take them five to eight years to graduate. And many can get lost in the process.

The National Center for Education Statistics places the part-time retention rate in postsecondary institutions at 43.5 percent.

Come September, the family will welcome another baby, and Martina is nervous about the future.

“We don’t qualify for any type of assistance like food stamps or anything like that, but we do struggle to make ends meet every month,” Martina said. “It’s hard to get yourself ready for not having that financial assistance at some point.”

The city of Santa Fe’s guaranteed income project is also set to end in September, unless Mayor Alan Webber can get city council members on board with a proposal to use federal pandemic relief funds for three annual rounds of $500,000 funding to supply cash payments to new cohorts of SFCC students ahead of the 2023 budget finalized July 1.

Currently, a webpage for the initiative solicits donations from the public. Webber hopes community donations could help increase the monthly payment amount.

“I think the idea would be to keep adding more people to the program,” Webber said in a recent interview. “If we’re putting some of the [American Rescue Plan] money in it over a three-year period, would that inspire others to pitch in?”

Webber hopes data yielded from the Santa Fe pilot and others around the US will push the federal government to consider guaranteed income, or at least local lawmakers to consider a statewide one.

Through Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, cities are able to design their own pilots. Webber said Santa Fe’s, with his focus on young student parents, is meant to improve community college student retention and job prospects.

He added, “There’s generation after generation of people who are locked in a seemingly unbreakable spiral of not having enough money, not doing well in school, not getting a well-paying job.”

Data from Santa Fe’s pilot project is not yet available. SFCC doesn’t have access to which students are receiving the funds and if any have since left school or stopped taking part in the program.

The first guaranteed income pilot project took place in Stockton, Calif., under Mayor Michael Tubbs in 2019; he later founded the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income initiative that Webber joined.

That program kicked off in 2019 and gave 125 participants — 70 percent of them women and 37 percent of them Hispanic — $500 monthly payments for 18 months.

Preliminary data from the study showed in its first full year, the number of participants working full time leapt from 28 percent to 40 percent. Only a quarter of participants reported they could pay for a $400 emergency in cash or a cash equivalent at the start of the program.

The number grew to 52 percent a year in.

Martina, meanwhile, has been using her $400 monthly assistance to help make her $550 car payment every month.

“They’ve been really helping me out,” she said of the payments. “Without having to negotiate groceries or bills.”

Before that, some of those car payments were paid off with a credit card. Martina said she’s got roughly $7,000 in credit card debt, partly accrued after taking in her nephew from a difficult home situation recently.

Martina’s pre-program classes at SFCC will finish up this term.

Next, she’ll apply to get a bachelor’s degree in nursing through a joint program with the community college and the University of New Mexico.

But that will entail becoming a full-time student, and she’s not sure if she’ll be able to quit her full-time work to do it after hopefully taking a break to care for her newborn this fall.

“I just have to see how life plays out,” she said.

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