Spotlight Exclusives

A Basic Income Pilot in America: An Interview with Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs

Michael Tubbs, Mayor of Stockton, California Michael Tubbs, Mayor of Stockton, California, posted on

Michael Tubbs is used to breaking new ground. In 2016, he was elected mayor of Stockton, California at the age of 26, becoming one of the youngest mayors in the country. Now, he’s preparing to launch the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), the first pilot of a basic income program in the United States. Spotlight recently spoke with Mayor Tubbs to discuss the initiative and other anti-poverty programs in the city. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Tell us about the basic income program and how it came to fruition?

Stockton has a 25 percent poverty rate. And poverty is at the crux of many of the challenges our city faces. Last year, I instructed our policy researchers to investigate the most radical policy ideas our city could implement. They came up with basic income. I was excited because I had been drawn to the idea of a basic income when I encountered it in Dr. King’s book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community.

Around the same time, I met Natalie Foster of the Economic Security Project. They were looking for a city to pilot a basic income demonstration. We mutually decided Stockton would be a great place to do this.

What are the specifics of the program?

All of the money for this comes from philanthropic dollars. No taxpayer dollars are being used. Participating families will receive $500 a month. We have one million dollars now so that’s enough for 100 families. I’d love to get ten million dollars, so we could do this for 1,000 families. That’s challenging but not insurmountable.

The pilot will last for 12 or 18 months depending on how much we ultimately raise. Right now, we are talking with research partners and storytelling partners and are looking to launch this in the fall or quarter one of next year. But we want to start as soon as we can.

What appealed to you about the concept of a basic income?

For me, the motivation was not primarily the threat of automation but rather social justice. People who work the hardest are often getting paid the least. We have to do something to help those who are struggling. Stockton is a great place to conduct this pilot because we are resourceful and we can show what folks can do with more opportunity.

The results of other demonstrations have been encouraging. I’ve read about a program in Brazil and another program providing money to villagers in Kenya. Preliminary research from a basic income pilot in Ontario shows people make good decisions with the money.

I also think of my mom. She’s brilliant and she wouldn’t want someone telling her how to spend $500. She would have come up with ways of helping her family that no requirements would have anticipated. People are rational actors and want to provide baseline security for their family.

And we need to do something. I read the other day that if trends continue net black wealth could hit zero by the middle of the century. Like Mandela, I think poverty is man-made and it is up to the actions of men to undo it. We should be open to all options and cash assistance has clearly shown promise.

What’s the reaction to your plan been like?

People are excited. We get dozens of calls every day asking how to participate and telling us about the hardships they are facing. Getting to hear these personal stories has made me even more bullish on the concept of basic income.

In terms of criticism, you sometimes hear “they won’t use the money well” or “you are disincentivizing people to work.” In response, I try and emphasize the evidence and that the vast majority of poor people already work.

Overall though, we’ve seen broad public support.

What are some of the other poverty and opportunity programs Stockton is experimenting with? I know you are introducing initiatives around education and gun violence.

Basic income is important but it’s not a panacea. We also want to emphasize good schools and safe neighborhoods.

You alluded to Stockton Scholars. This program offers guaranteed scholarships to all children from our largest school district who pursue higher education. This is personal for me, as I’m the first in my family to go to college and that paved the way for me to be mayor. We got 20 million in seed money for this from the California Community Foundation and a bunch of local partners are supporting it as well.

We also have the Advance Peace program which is focused on the guys who are causing the majority of gun violence in the city. We’re not just focusing on incarceration but offering individuals likely to be involved in shootings opportunities to travel, be part of a cohort, and receive therapy. And after six months of good behavior, they are eligible to receive a paid fellowship.

All three of these I’ve talked about are motivated by the core ethos that the best investment we can make is in people. Whether that’s high school students, or people struggling in the economy, or even people causing harm in our community.

And all of these initiatives are supported through philanthropic dollars?

Yes. This has been a focus for my administration. At Stanford, I started a program called The Phoenix Scholars that supports high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds who want to go to college. Through this, I spent a lot of time with foundation leaders and saw the ability for philanthropic dollars to be a catalyst to push ideas forward and encourage government to try new things.

It’s important for us because Stockton doesn’t have millions in discretionary dollars. The baseline budget isn’t enough to meet our needs. So I’m looking to catalyze things, and then once you show proof of concept you try and find public-private partnerships or other ways of making this sustainable.

Michael Tubbs is currently Mayor of Stockton, California.

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