A book with the title, “The Guarantee: Inside the Fight for America’s Next Economy” by Natalie Foster

Truth to Power is a regular series of conversations with writers about the promises and pitfalls of movements for social justice. From the roots of racial capitalism to the psychic toll of poverty, from resource wars to popular uprisings, the interviews in this column focus on how to write about the myriad causes of oppression and the organized desire for a better world.

Steve Dubb: In your introduction, you write that we’re in a period of transition from neoliberalism—policies that systemically favor corporations over working people—to something else. I could elaborate on this, but I don’t define neoliberalism as small government because it isn’t.

Natalie Foster: That’s right.

SD: Anyhow, how do you think about the opportunity and the risks that we face in this current moment of transition?

NF: For the past 50 years, economic policymaking has largely been summed up by three tenets—total faith in the market, zero faith in government, and people left pulling themselves by their bootstraps. That has been the reigning orthodoxy.

I think you could argue that it is also about favoring corporations over everyday people. That is the result of the total faith in the market story. And we live in a world where the outcomes of that period are clear and all around us: 25 percent of Americans have zero [for] retirement saved; four out of 10 Americans couldn’t pull together $400 in savings if they needed to. We, as a nation, are broke, stressed out, and overworked. And there’s very little hope to change those things if we continue down that path. 

I think, in 2008, the trickle-down emperor was proven to have no clothes. We would shore up the banks and leave everyday people out to dry. Ten million people lost their homes. Black and Latino families would lose nearly half of their wealth. 

And we would enter a period of transition. We would see Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and a 2016 primary that had candidates unlike any other with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. So, the evidence of a shift is all around us. 

At this moment, we face a choice: we can walk down a more authoritarian, austere, racist path of economic policymaking. Or we can walk down the path toward guaranteeing economic rights, where government creates a floor below which no one can fall. And that is now more possible than ever before.

In 2008, the trickle-down emperor was proven to have no clothes. We would shore up the banks and leave everyday people out to dry.

SD: Being a Kansas preacher’s daughter and attending college at Pepperdine, a conservative Christian university, seems an unlikely organizing trajectory. But you write that you found “so much crossover between building a congregation and building a community campaign.” Could you talk about how your religious upbringing informs your organizing, your economic analysis, and your politics?

NF: I grew up the daughter of a preacher and discovered organizing in college. And organizing is something I found very compelling. It is about bringing people together for a shared purpose. And I could use the skills to help create a better world here on Earth.

In college, we had a week of peace and justice that brought two Christian theologians in—Jim Wallis and Cornell West. It was something West said that stuck with me and helped clarify a path, which was that justice is what love looks like in public. So much of my upbringing had been about love and the ways in which it manifests—and understanding that it is we fight for.

In my organizing, I have used technology to bring people together. I have gotten to run some of the biggest digital departments in the country and pioneer new tactics. But the last half has been organizing around ideas and how we move ideas from the margins to mainstream.

SD: How do you move ideas from the margins to the mainstream?

NF: One part is having the intellectual underpinnings—the journals, the white papers, and the intellectual work to make ideas a reality. But another part is building power around those ideas. We built a framework at the Economic Security Project, which was to provoke big ideas—provoke questions around them—legitimize them, and win. 

Can you move things through the life cycle? And what does it take to legitimize ideas in certain circles? I think leadership is an important part of that. Investing in leaders from different communities who speak to those ideas. So, you need the intellectual work, the power building, and the campaigning and advocacy around those ideas to win.  

SD: Your book is titled The Guarantee. What are the main guarantees you advocate, and how does your framework relate to past efforts, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s economic bill of rights in which he called for “useful and remunerative” jobs, decent homes, adequate medical care, education, and more? 

NF: I was head down building the guaranteed income work in the field alongside leaders like Michael Tubbs and Aisha Nyandoro. As I pulled my head up, I realized it wasn’t just the guarantee of income, it was the guarantee of healthcare, guaranteed homes, a guarantee of family work, a guaranteed inheritance, and of college that are moving into mainstream policy arenas thanks to the long tireless advocacy of what I call guarantee architects.

A baby bond…is the idea that a trust is established for every child at birth to create seed capital for their life when they become an adult.

I was in a conversation with Darrick Hamilton, who runs the Institute on Race, Policy, and Political Economy at The New School. He was talking about a 21st century economic bill of rights for the multiracial democracy. And it all clicked together for me. He was certainly drawing on FDR’s vision but updating it for this moment in time. And I thought about how I wanted to talk about those rights. And for me, it was about guaranteeing. 

And it is built into a lot of the organizing frameworks. The Homes Guarantee—I talk about Tara Raghuveer and her story [of] pulling together housing and tenant advocates under the banner of the homes guarantee. And that’s certainly true with my work on the income guarantee, picking up the framework that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote about, in his final book—Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?—where he calls for a guaranteed minimum income. I think it is building on that work, but knowing we are in a moment where these ideas have moved forward.  

SD: What do you take from the past? What are you changing?

NF: I think there are some old ideas—like the guarantee of good work or the guarantee of income that this country is built on in many ways and had moments when they were quite popular—specifically, guaranteed income was quite popular in the 1960s. And we would lose that thread in the 50 years of trickle-down economics. There is a new modern surge today that I think has a direct line to the past.  

There are also new ideas that didn’t have as much momentum in the past. One is a guaranteed inheritance—colloquially called a baby bond. This is the idea that a trust is established for every child at birth to create seed capital for their life when they become an adult to spend on housing, get a degree, or start a business—just like a child with generational wealth can. It should be equally distributed for all kids regardless of race, religion, and income. I think that is a guarantee that is newer but, as I noted in the book, has been passed in many states. In 2021, [the] state of Connecticut established baby bonds. We saw Washington, DC, and California follow suit. And it continues to be an idea that generates great interest among state treasurers across the country. 

SD: In the book, you write that during the pandemic, ideas “that had been laughed out of the room when I lived in DC and worked for President Obama in his first term were suddenly embraced.” Could you share some examples?

NF: Absolutely. The big example is the idea of debt-free college. And the idea that one way to get there was would be to retroactively cancel student debt. The idea that government could cancel billions of dollars of student debt was not on the radar….We were just starting to focus on student debtors from for-profit private schools. It was during that period we would see the very first debt being erased from Corinthian [Colleges] in 2015. 

The idea would grow and build momentum. There would be research done on different ways it could happen across the executive branch, the legislative branch—certainly the courts would weigh in—but we continue to see the executive branch be able to cancel billions of dollars in student debt. Freeing up so much space in peoples’ lives who had walked around with a ball and chain after doing exactly what the country told them to do, to get a degree. That’s an idea that I feel has become that was laughed out of the room a decade ago and has become a Rose Garden event today in this White House.  

SD: Were there any specific missed opportunities? 

NF: I think a big, missed opportunity was the way the Affordable Care Act was passed. It was passed in 2010. One big question at the time was should we include a public option inside of the Affordable Care Act—and weren’t able to make it happen.

As we move forward, we just saw North Carolina, 14 years later, become the fortieth state to expand Medicaid, ensuring that the lowest income North Carolinians have health insurance backed by the government, which is a public option. So, I think the Affordable Care Act has expanded and stretched in meaningful ways. Certainly, during the pandemic, it would catch millions of people who would lose their jobs overnight as the economy shut down. And when you lose your job in America, it means not only your paycheck, but your healthcare. And instead of a tsunami of uninsured Americans, we would see Medicaid catch those people, and we would have the lowest number of uninsured Americans at any point in history. It expanded in ways that were very meaningful, that were not foreseen, couldn’t have been foreseen 14 years ago, but also point to the need for a public option to get us closer to a healthcare guarantee.

The way we start to shift [the economic policy narrative] is by showing that government can work in people’s lives.

SD: You mentioned that during the Great Recession 10 million Americans lost their homes, yet the federal government did little for them, even as banks got bailed out. Evidently, there is an ongoing trauma from that experience, and it is hard to blame people who lost their homes for their lack of faith in government. So, how do you address that?

NF: It is hard to blame people for their lack of faith in government after an experience like 2008. That is true. It is also true that for the past 50 years or more, but particularly the last 50 years, we have been told a story that government plays no role in our lives and should play no role in creating an economy. Generations have been brought up with that story, despite the fact that during that time, government played a very active role in supporting businesses and essentially creating a set of guarantees for businesses. 

Often it was masked. If you took out certain mortgages or student loans that were backed by the government, it would be presented as a private company. So, even government’s involvement in supporting everyday Americans would be masked by a phenomenon that Suzanne Mettler calls the “submerged state.”

So, we have been told a story for a long period of time. The way we start to shift that is by showing that government can work in people’s lives. So, on the topic of homes, in the pandemic, we saw the first ever national eviction moratorium that would keep people in their homes. We saw government support people who couldn’t pay their rent or mortgage to keep people in their homes. And we saw government do big things—like purchase hotels and move in the unhoused, giving people a room of their own with a key. That got us closer to a home guarantee. So, I think when we start to see it in action, it makes it easier for the story to change. 

SD: As US voter turnout statistics demonstrate, many folks check out of politics. Could you address the question of trauma directly and how that affects politics?

NF: The thing we know about trauma is that people have to have space and time to heal from it. On the current path we’re on, many people work minimum wage jobs at $7.25 an hour and must work multiple jobs to put food on the table. That leaves little space to participate in democracy. So, I think there is a real connection between democracy and economic security. 

One path creates a downward spiral, where people are not engaged in the process—therefore, they have less of the economic pie and trust the process less. That continues a downward spiral.

Whereas if people secure more economic security, and the time and space that comes with that, then you could imagine more engagement, with economic gains becoming shared more widely. That is the upward trust spiral that we could create.

SD: In your book, you write that most people, when surveyed, say they’ve never benefitted from a social program, even though they have. I ran this experiment myself once. I was a teaching assistant at the time at a public university. I asked my students if any of them had benefitted from public subsidy. They were attending a public university, yet few recognized that they had been subsidized. Could you talk about what the implications of this “submerged state” are?

NF: There was an era of big government in neoliberalism. It just wasn’t organized to benefit everyday people. The submerged state is the idea that government is working in our lives but is masked. People don’t see it as such. But the parts of government—which are frankly some of the smallest expenditures—like the safety net, have been weaponized to divide us by race, gender, and religion by those who want to reap economic gains for themselves. 

There is an overfocus on some parts of the system—let’s call it the safety net. There is much less focus on the mortgage interest deduction and the other parts of the safety net that benefit so many middle-class Americans. 

What is the remedy? It’s important to make government work for people and for people to know it is working in their lives. One recent example that I think is very good is the Internal Revenue Service’s Direct File tool. It was rolled out during tax season in 2024, and it was free tax filing tool by the government, by the IRS. They piloted it in 12 states. And there weren’t a lot of headlines about it because it worked. When things work, they don’t get the same attention. 

It was a tool that would sit alongside private tax prep companies. You could continue to pay somebody to fill out your taxes, or you could use the government tool for free. They pre-populated it for those who have very simple tax filings with last year’s tax filings to be able to click a button to say, “Yeah, that’s the same,” eliminating hours of people’s time and millions of dollars on preparation fees. This is an example of government working. You could imagine a scenario where they roll it out with some different brand, but this is IRS Direct File. I am glad to see that. It makes it clear who’s bringing you this public option.

SD: I’m glad you bring up IRS Direct File because it’s important to show where the government is working. But you still see many things go awry, as with FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) this year. We also ran an article on something that got less attention: namely, the US Department of Education is taking public student loan forgiveness servicing in-house, so borrowers can access their loan history on studentaid.gov, which makes sense. But in April, they really did send emails out advising millions of borrowers to take a screenshot of their loan history because their new site wouldn’t be up until two to three months after the prior site was to be taken down. What drives things like that? 

NF: Jen Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, had a really great book out last year called Recoding America. She talks about her experiences inside the federal government, inside the California state government during the pandemic, and across different states, of trying to build services and all the systems in place that make it hard to put users at the center. I think it is surfacing some really important changes that need to be made in order to have government effectively do what it sets out to do.

SD: If I had a child who was a graduating high school senior this year, I would have been upset about what happened with FAFSA.

NF: Totally. The FAFSA situation is terrible. And I am very concerned about all the students who are trying to start school in the fall and have no idea what their student aid will look like. And student aid is the only way for many to afford college. We live in a world where college is not understood—yet—to be a public good. It has been understood over the last 50 years to really be something that is a personal investment that one has to take out extraordinary amounts of loans to obtain. It is unacceptable for government to not be working in that scenario, and it is important that we get it right. 

SD: Beyond the guarantees, what would you envision a post-neoliberal world looking like? And how do you think about the politics and economics of this? As you know, sometimes when people’s lives get a little better, the political support for government programs can decline.

NF: Heather McGhee’s book, The Sum of Us, does such a good job of talking about this phenomenon. As she details, as progress was made and integration started happening, many White families opted to support politicians who opted to fill in swimming pools with gravel rather than have an integrated pool that everyone could have because of race. That is part of why we live in the world in which we live, in which so many of the basics are not considered public goods but are considered private investments. I believe that we should move to a world where there are guarantees and build the economic floor for a multiracial democracy.

I think a world with the guarantees would look like a world where people have their basic needs met and can experience lives of freedom, agency, dignity, and of presence. What we put our attention toward is one of the most precious commodities we have. And the further down the income ladder you go, in order to put food on the table and a roof over the heads, the more your time is spoken for. 

So, I would want a world where everybody has the ability to spend time with those that they love. To be with their families, however, they define that. I think all of that is possible, here in the richest nation on earth, if we invest in guarantees.

SD: To go back to the choice that you presented in the first question, if you look at the 1930s, some countries took a social democratic path (including, to some degree, the United States through the New Deal). Others obviously took a fascist path. Any thoughts about that fork in the road and what is likely to tip it one way or the other?  

NF: I think that this is an important year for that question. There are more elections worldwide that any moment in history; the world’s biggest democracies will be voting. There is a rise of authoritarianism across the globe, not just in the United States. In some ways we are very much at that crossroads as a global community. 

It is so clear to me that if the gains of the economy were more widely shared, we would not be in this situation. But here we are. And, in the United States, we have seen policies that invest more in families—things like the expanded child tax credit, rental assistance to keep people in their homes, unemployment insurance, as well as industrial policy that says let’s build new factories right here in the United States using union labor, increasing wages overall. And our economy has recovered better after the pandemic than economies that continued with the old playbook.

So, I think there is reason to be hopeful, but the march toward authoritarianism is indeed global and something we should all be concerned about. 

SD: Is there anything else you would like to add?

NF: There is a way the stories we learn about the economy lead us to believe that the economy is like the weather—that it is something that happens to us, when in fact it is a house that we construct every step of the way, with outcomes we decide on. That should give us hope.