By Phil Clapham
For The Beachcomber
At the age of only 21, islander Abigail Lawson finds herself directing a major social support program, one which promotes the idea of a guaranteed income for people in need.
It’s a remarkable responsibility for one so young, but you don’t have to spend much time with her to realize that she’s up to the task.
Born in Utah, Lawson’s family settled on Vashon when she was 12. After graduating from Vashon High School in 2018, she took time off to travel — motivated, she said, by “an itch to explore that hasn’t left me.” Asked what she took away from six months of seeing other parts of the world, she replied, “I learned that, despite very different cultural contexts, human beings are essentially the same the world over.” The experience also reinforced her view, she said, “that Vashon is stunningly beautiful.”
During her high school years, Lawson took classes at Tacoma Community College through the Running Start program and graduated with an associates degree. This allowed her to enter the University of Washington as a senior and to complete her bachelor’s degree — a triple major in politics, philosophy and economics — in a single year.
For most people, the childhood question of what you want to be when you grow up changes with age, and Lawson is no different. When she was young, she wanted to be a marine biologist, and “spend all my time out on the ocean,” she said. Later on, her family thought she would most likely end up as a lawyer or even a politician — a prediction that reflects a recognition of both her passion for service and her skills as a persuasive advocate for those less fortunate than herself.
A turning point came when she volunteered for the 2020 presidential campaign of Andrew Yang. There, she learned about the concept of a guaranteed income, which was a central element of Yang’s platform. Despite the disappointment that came with Yang dropping out of the race, the experience gave her a strong appreciation of what she calls “fact-based politics.”
In January of this year, Lawson interned with Growing Resilience in Tacoma (GRIT), a new guaranteed income demonstration program that’s a collaborative endeavor of United Way of Pierce County, Mayors For A Guaranteed Income, the Tacoma Mayor’s office, and the Center for Guaranteed Income Research at the University of Pennsylvania. By September, the intern had so impressed the United Way leadership that they hired her to direct the program.
GRIT aims to support families by giving each of them $500 a month for 12 months. Applicants had to meet certain criteria, including living in one of four zip codes and making no more than 200% of the federal poverty level. Applicants also had to be a single parent or head of household, and have children in the house.
More than two thousand people submitted completed applications; funding is currently available for one hundred and ten. The successful applicants will be paid monthly, with no strings attached regarding how they use the money. However, their expenditures will be tracked, and the financial data will be provided to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania together with information from periodic interviews. Together, the data will be used to assess how successful the program is in improving both the financial and general well-being and health of the participants.
Asked why the program is important, Lawson launched into a long response.
“A 110 families will be receiving $6,000 for the next year,” she said. “This means they’ll be able to do things they wouldn’t otherwise – ‘I can repair my car, my kid can get new clothes this month, I can pay my rent, et cetera.’ Plus it will inject $660,000 into the local economy.”
Lawson also explained the broader importance of this experiment, which is being repeated in other cities across the country by progressive mayors.
“It’s an attempt to help eradicate poverty, and to address racial and gender income gaps,” she said. “Guaranteed income helps people to make their own decisions, to step out of the scarcity that too often breeds envy, anger and violence.”
She singled out what she calls the innovative vision of Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, for whom she has great respect (“Plus,” she laughs, “Victoria is hilarious”). And she admires the work of Hilary Emmer on Vashon, who, though Vashon’s Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness, established the Virus Rent Fund and is now working on a new program to provide a guaranteed income (via direct rent payments) to lower-income families on the island.
The admiration is mutual.
“I’m so impressed with Abby, and with United Way for what they’re doing,” said Emmer.
Lawson’s goals for the next few years include finishing up the current program strongly, advocating for other programs within Washington State, and perhaps even promoting similar approaches at a national level. She’d also like to return to traveling at some point, but with a purpose in mind rather than just random wandering.
Is Lawson surprised to be working as a program director at such a young age?
“I don’t know, but I’m incredibly grateful every day for this opportunity,” she said. “At the beginning of the year, I was writing in my journal and asked myself what would be the coolest thing I would do in 2021. This job is it.”
“And,” she added with a laugh, “my family is so relieved that I’m now paid to talk to someone other than them about the whole guaranteed income thing”.
For more information on the Interfaith Council’s new program for monthly rent subsidies, contact Hilary Emmer at email@example.com or 206 463-7277.