Shimica Gaskins

President & CEO

Organization: GRACE

Location: Pasadena, CA


“We need to address the pervasive wealth inequalities in our state, and baby bonds are a dignity-centered solution.”

Leading Edge Vision:

Shimica’s vision is to close the racial wealth gap and create economic mobility for California’s most vulnerable children by piloting the largest baby bond program in the country.

What is your vision for your community? For California?

My broad vision is to abolish and eradicate poverty around the country, starting in California, where we have the largest wealth inequality and disparity in income and opportunity for children. We have had a number of advancements in our social safety nets and programs that have helped children and families, but we know they need so much more.

My vision is that every child has the opportunity for a childhood that is full of abundance, love, safety, dignity and opportunity to thrive. This country, including California, has had a history of creating intergenerational poverty through racist, exclusionary policies. To change that trajectory, we have to do more than ensure a child is housed and fed today. We must also start to grow children’s futures with seed funding investments that will serve as capital once they reach adulthood.

Can you share a story, either personal or from a directly impacted person, that exemplifies the problem you are trying to solve?

I grew up in deep poverty in South Carolina, and that experience really is a driver for my work and vision. I know personally that when you have the opportunity to receive a college education and attend graduate school, you can start to change a person’s trajectory through economic and educational opportunities. But, it is rare when we see children of color who get to pursue these opportunities and, even then, it is not without struggle.

Despite all the work that has happened since the civil rights era, we are still in the same place in terms of the national wealth disparity, particularly for Black and Latinx children and families. The top 10 percent of white households own 70 percent of the nation’s wealth. In California, the disparities are even starker. In Los Angeles, for example, Black and Latinx families have a mere one percent of the wealth of their white counterparts. And when we look at the children who have access to college, that return on investment doesn’t necessarily change their overall access to wealth overnight. For a Black child that goes to college, they usually can be expected to take out more loans, as compared to  their white counterparts. And when a Black graduate enters the workforce, they can be expected to earn less than their white counterparts. So, while education is a key factor, we must understand it’s not the whole story.

When you talk to young people today, their hopes and dreams have mostly been contingent on being able to finish school, get into college and get a good job. But their aspirations are often stifled by not having access to capital. Access to capital can underwrite dreams for children in communities where resources have been divested and wealth inequality is pervasive. I’ve seen countless young people who  were admitted into college, but weren’t able to attend full time or stay in school at all because they didn’t have enough student loans to cover housing, meal plans, books or transportation.

A baby bond is a publicly funded trust account that can reduce the racial wealth gap. An investment fund matures over time and, when a low-income child turns 18 years old, provides $12,000 to $20,000, at the low end, and $30,000 to $40,000, at the high end. That type of capital can help make young people’s hopes and dreams a reality and give them the freedom to invest in entrepreneurship, housing, or furthering their education.

What progress have you seen thus far in your work?

The baby bonds concept isn’t new. It was proposed by economists William A. Darity and Darrick Hamilton. For over a decade, organizations and other advocates have been working to popularize this idea in America. They’ve done it successfully in Europe. We’re hoping to get traction here because California, the 5th largest economy in the world, is entering a second year of a record surplus budget. We have upwards of $30 million to $35 million additional dollars to spend.

How can we lean into this moment for transformative change in a state with the highest child poverty rate? In 2018, there were two million children living in poverty in California. It’s a moral crisis to live in such a wealthy state and still have such stark disparities that fall across racial lines.

It’s an exciting time because we know we have the money to do it, and the vision for it. We also know it’s needed to move us past band-aid solutions to break this intergenerational cycle. In the last several years, California has held its commitment to reduce child poverty by including the investment in children and families in its budget. That’s been a really critical step we’ve taken, and we’ve seen the impact during the pandemic. We had federal and state support to come in to help most vulnerable children and families. We now have the opportunity to continue that momentum of driving  down those numbers and keep them down. We can ensure that children have hope and opportunity for tomorrow.

What more would you like to do?

This year, Senator Nancy Skinner is introducing a bill called “Hope for Children Act,” which will specifically open the pathway for baby bonds. The bill provides a baby bond trust account for children who lost a parent or primary caregiver to COVID-19 and children who are currently in the foster system. Our goal is to have all low-income children in California covered by the policy in the future if this bill is passed.

When I started thinking about this project, I wanted to make sure to expand access to the most vulnerable children, including those impacted by mass incarceration. California has had some of the most draconian laws when it comes to criminal justice. Children living at the intersection of poverty and criminal justice are often left out of the conversation. Sometimes they are in foster care, but sometimes they’re in kin care, so they don’t have access to a lot of the social safety net programs because they aren’t wards of the state. They are at the top of my list in terms of children that should benefit from this type of program.

Part of the bill will ask the legislature to study and report back what it would take to include all low-income California children into these types of accounts. California has always led, so we want the opportunity for California to create a very robust program to model for the nation. The way baby bonds work is that you put in a certain amount of dollars to grow passively over time. The Hope Act would provide children 0-10 years old an initial deposit of $4,000 and children 10-17 years old would get a deposit of $8,000.

What barriers have you faced, or continue to face, in achieving your vision of change?

The first barrier is the narrative around race, equity, and income. We’ve seen it in the guaranteed income space. There’s this narrative of “deservingness.” There are folks who don’t want investments and savings to be made for people living in poverty. They ask questions like, “How will they spend the money?” Or, “Are they financially responsible?” There is a barrier in showing why these investments are really owed to children who live in poverty, and why they are the solution to changing the racial wealth gap.

The other barrier is cost. It’s not an inexpensive program—most transformative government programs aren’t. But we must explain how this upfront investment in children will yield enormous returns in 18-20 years from now. Like any worthwhile investment, we have to convince folks to focus on the long-term vision, not the short-term costs.

How will the Leading Edge Fund fellowship help? 

The Leading Edge Fund is providing me an opportunity to lean into the ability to go after and push for big and bold ideas. Often, we have these ideas that you have to figure out how to move forward with no support, so the Leading Edge Fund is really exciting because not only does it come with resources, but it brings the depth and breadth of experts and a cohort of leaders who are thinking boldly and working towards change together. It is really exciting to be a part of a fellowship with such a history of having an impact.

California has been a leader in supporting children and families, but it has always taken an advocacy and grassroots organizing push to do it. Over the last two years, organizations, government and businesses have wanted to bring about racial equity, and this is an opportunity for everyone to get involved. The fellowship allows me to elevate a solution that is grounded in racial equity and justice.

Who needs to hear your story and what is your call to action for them?

Policy makers need to hear about this work. Philanthropy needs to hear about this work. Our communities need to hear about this work. So much has been divested from communities, and this is a way to bring capital and assets back. Everyone should be galvanized and excited to support this idea because it can change the trajectory for so many people in California.

My call to action is for people to demand this program as a part of a key cornerstone of the racial justice fight. We need to address the pervasive wealth inequalities in our state and baby bonds are a dignity-centered solution.