Meet the team leading UpLift – The Central Iowa Basic Income Pilot

Dec 8, 2022

This fall, Ashley Ezzio and Michael Berger joined The Harkin Institute at Drake University to lead the coordination for UpLift – The Central Iowa Basic Income Pilot. They have been focused on preparing for the launch in early 2023, with time spent engaging the community to ensure the application process is accessible and those selected can make informed decisions about participating. They are also working to brand the project and educate stakeholders on what the pilot is and what impact it can have on our community.

As Lead Project Coordinator, Ezzio joins the team while finishing a master’s degree in public health from Des Moines University and has previous work experience in nonprofit and government roles. Most recently, she managed the Iowa Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection program and coordinated the development and implementation of the Title V Community-Based Doula Project at the Iowa Department of Public Health.  

As Project Coordinator, Berger joins after graduating with a master’s degree in public health from the University of Iowa. This summer, he completed a practicum project with Mid-Iowa Health Foundation focused on researching basic income projects across the nation and engaging central Iowa partners to inform how to design the local pilot model.  

In this interview, Ezzio and Berger take us behind the scenes to see how the project is unfolding.

What excites you most about being involved in UpLift – The Central Iowa Basic Income Pilot?

EZZIO: The fact that we’re addressing poverty at the core. With the Doula Project looking at healthy birth outcomes, you have to back up to consider a mother’s access to food, housing, family support, etc. What excites me most about this project is that we’re here, at the core, trying to make an impact that has this trickle down. How can we come up with innovative ideas to make sure the public benefits systems work in ways that address social determinants of health and give people a fresh start and the autonomy to do that?  

BERGER: I’m also really excited to see where this goes after the pilot project. I know it is still super early on, but I want this to be something that isn’t for just two years. There are so many possibilities. Hopefully the data coming from this pilot can be used as fuel to spark a larger conversation around basic income and how we can bring it to Iowa.

What experiences are you bringing to the leadership of this project?

BERGER: My practicum helped me get started. I am applying what I learned in classes as well, remembering any sort of readings, lectures I’ve been to, and seeing how the lessons apply to the pilot project. Talking with community organizations and having touchpoints early on has been really helpful to what I’m doing now by having even more conversations and gauging interest in the project.

EZZIO: Michael and I complement each other. I’m drawing on my experience with the Doula Project, the first of its kind as far as standing something up within state structure; that experience of what it looks like to come to a community and say, “Hey, we have a project. Here’s what we’re doing. Who has buy in and who has a vested interest in this?” We’re engaging people of all sectors: child care, child protective services, health sector, food access. We also have private investors really invested in what housing stability looks like. Academia is excited to see this. It’s neat to see all the pieces come together, especially from my background in nonprofit and public health and having community allies.

What are important considerations as you’ve worked to bring this project together?

BERGER: Prioritizing equity has been crucial and making sure that project is accessible to those people that really do need it the most to at least have the opportunity to be a part of it. It’s why we’re having so many conversations with community organizations across Polk, Warren, and Dallas Counties who work with communities that are underrepresented and underserved.

EZZIO: Equity is at the core of what we’re doing. That comes into a lot of ethical decisions and a lot of thoughts about engagement with our community. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to protect participants’ public benefits, how to communicate properly, how to do this in a culturally congruent way.

What part of the work are you especially diving into right now?

EZZIO: What’s really come to light is just how difficult it is to get the assistance and benefits you need to get ahead in life. We are specifically looking at cliff effects people go through. Families are disincentivized to take a raise and make $2-3 dollars more an hour, because they lose child care and other assistance. Therefore, they can’t take that raise or increase of hours or they will fall off a cliff so hard that they will be worse off than before. That looks different for each family. I hope we can discuss as a community the complexity of that. We all have the same goal; now let’s talk about what are the barriers and breaking those down.

BERGER: As we’ve been learning about the public benefit system and trying to navigate how to have a benefits counseling session with participants, something we’ve definitely noticed is how difficult it is to even do this type of work and research, which says something about how the system needs to be modified or there needs to be some other option that supplements it. We want to show how a basic income can improve the lives of participants, but participants might not be interested if their public benefits prevent them from participating.

How is the project a part of public health?

BERGER: Why I love this pilot so much and wanted to be part of it is when I did my practicum, I had so many conversations with people doing amazing work within the community. It’s an opportunity for us all to come to the table together and have a conversation on how we address the root causes of poverty or a lot of these issues going on. Organizations are doing great programs, so getting their insight and getting them involved now is critical for us learning how to do the pilot well and for this to become something bigger and more impactful. What can we do with this to help people reach better financial stability and economic mobility?

EZZIO: If folks are given the ability to breathe financially, maybe they can think about preventative health, which is a huge component of public health. When you are in survival mode and thinking can you get that next meal or what your child needs, you can’t really think long term. Getting that mammogram seems like time off work you just can’t take. Or when you are asked to go to your kid’s school conference, you have to take off work or leave your second job. If we give people space to breathe, they can engage in those things. Public health at its core is what we’re implementing here.

What is the value of being housed at The Harkin Institute?

EZZIO: Accessibility is so important to the Harkin Institute and being able to bring the expertise of that to the project has been huge—everything from making sure the website can be read with a screen reader to our business cards having braille, so thinking about the community as a whole. I think UpLift – The Central Iowa Basic Income Pilot has a home in all four categories at the Institute: labor and employment, people with disabilities, wellness and nutrition, and even retirement security.

BERGER: Being housed at the Harkin Institute has allowed this opportunity for Ashley and me and the Harkin Institute to earn some trust with the community. Something I learned a lot about when in grad school was how there is a power imbalance between academic settings and those working in the community when we should be working together to improve the communities we are housed in. We are showing that we want to do things right; we want to listen to community. We know there is experience and expertise there that we don’t have here.

What do you want the community to know about this project?

EZZIO: That it’s theirs. All of this came together in order to ensure our communities have better access to everything they deserve. We want their voices at the table, want to talk about this, want people to engage. We know only a 110 selected individuals will receive the monthly income payment and that the need is greater. This is just the first step though—one tiny piece to this larger change we are hoping to spark.

BERGER: We would not be able to do this without the help of community organizations and community members and the knowledge they have. Ashley and I have learned so much in the process already. We really look forward to having conversations later on, and we hope people are interested in and proud of what is happening in central Iowa.

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