American Dream: An Introduction to Baby Bonds, a Birthright to Economic Security

By David Radcliffe | October 18, 2023

Baby Bonds are an increasingly popular government policy in which every child born into poverty receives a publicly funded trust account at birth, providing them with “start-up capital” that can be used upon adulthood for wealth-building activities such as starting a business, purchasing a home, or pursuing higher education. Follow our Baby Blogs series to learn about the vision, people, and politics behind Baby Bonds and how they can help all of our neighbors pursue fulfilling, productive, prosperous, and self-directed lives.

Frog Hollow is the long-time colorful name of the mostly residential neighborhood closest to the State Capitol in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s where I first lived when I moved to Connecticut after college, and where I earned my keep as a young community organizer. In the decades after the Civil War, at the height of the industrial revolution, Hartford was considered one of America’s wealthiest communities. JP Morgan was born here, and so were Mark Twain and his next-door neighbor and fellow-author Harriet Beecher Stowe. But the skyline of billowing smokestacks did not last. Over the past 50 years, as has happened to so many smaller cities in New England and the Midwest, industry, capital, and jobs have disappeared. While Frog Hollow today remains full of life and color and beautiful noise, poverty has set down deep roots. Today, Frog Hollow residents have among the lowest incomes and wealth of any place in the country.

On the edge of Frog Hollow is the Connecticut State Capitol, built in 1879, just down the road from where Twain wrote The Gilded Age and Adventures of Tom Sawyer. And on May 17, 2023, under that glittering gold dome on a bright sunny day, Connecticut State Treasurer Erick Russell, backed by state elected leadership, announced a hard-fought deal to fully fund the Connecticut Baby Bond Trust—an initiative designed to close the state’s pernicious wealth gap, one of the worst in America. This policy has the potential to transform the economic well-being of people who happen to be born into poverty, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or zip code. Baby Bonds is universal by design, but is race-conscious in that the legacy of intergenerational poverty hits certain groups harder.

Although Baby Bonds seem like a hot, new policy innovation, the idea can be traced back to philosopher and political activist Thomas Paine. In his 1797 essay, Agrarian Justice, Paine suggests a “public system of economic security” to give young people a head start in life. He argued that all people reaching adulthood should receive a capital grant to help them “begin the world.” More than 200 years later, Baby Bonds builds on this and other efforts. A national Baby Bonds proposal was developed and popularized by economist and university professor Dr. Darrick Hamilton, who grew up in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY — a community that in the second half of the 20th century experienced some of the same issues of segregation and disinvestment as Frog Hollow.

At the state level, Baby Bonds was first proposed in 2021 by previous Connecticut State Treasurer Shawn Wooden. He grew up in an impoverished neighborhood in north Hartford. Wooden, who was at the time the only elected Black state treasurer in the country, led a team of community and legislative leaders to make Connecticut the first state to pass Baby Bonds legislation. 

Since then, interest in Baby Bonds has exploded at the local, state, and even international levels. In the United States, Nevada, Washington, Wisconsin, North Carolina, California, and Massachusetts have all introduced Baby Bonds legislation. Imagine the boundless human potential and ingenuity that could be unleashed if all of our neighbors could be properly resourced through efforts like Baby Bonds! Beyond the economic benefits, it will be worth exploring if young adults and their families also experience improved maternal health, greater hopefulness and expectations for the future, and greater civic engagement.

Over the coming months, with the help of interviews and guest co-authors from Connecticut and around the country, we’ll be publishing a series of short “nuts and bolts” blog pieces on Baby Bonds. These Baby Blogs will help stakeholders, decision makers, funders, and community members understand the in’s and out’s of Baby Bonds and how this transformative policy can be used as part of a broader set of legislative solutions to create an innovative economy that works for all. 

There is much already written on why we have a wealth gap, who is most impacted, why it matters, and possible ways to address it. Where useful, we will point the reader to this important background and other resources. Baby Blogs will illustrate how a transformative policy like Baby Bonds happens—from the early-stage visioning and seed planting, to building strategic alliances and awareness across the political spectrum, addressing key questions and vulnerabilities, and fostering successful adoption and implementation. Throughout this journey we’ll explore and spotlight why early wealth building solutions like Baby Bonds are essential to help all of our neighbors achieve the American Dream. 

David Radcliffe is the State and Local Policy Director for the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy. Prior to joining the Institute, David served as policy director for the Office of CT State Treasurer, where he supported implementation of the first-in-the-country “Baby Bonds” wealth building initiative. David was born in Ohio and grew up in a small factory town of the Appalachian foothills in western Pennsylvania. He has a strong passion for working with people to build places and economies where everyone can live happy, fulfilling, prosperous, and productive lives.

To learn more, explore our Baby Bonds resources.