Former Stockton Mayor to Wage EPIC Battle Against Poverty in California
Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton, Calif., lost his re-election bid in 2020 but his passion for anti-poverty policies remains. Tubbs, whose work pioneering a universal basic income pilot in Stockton sparked a wave of similar projects in dozens of U.S. cities, announced this month the launch of End Poverty in California (EPIC), a nonprofit with the audacious goal of ending poverty in California. EPIC supports a wider adoption of guaranteed income, the use of “baby bonds” to help Californians with low incomes build wealth and focusing on changing the often-harmful public narrative about people living in poverty. Tubbs spoke with Spotlight recently about his new project; the transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
First of all, congratulations on launching this new project. Tell me where the idea for EPIC came from and what you’re trying to do.
I’ve always been obsessed with ending poverty. That’s what drove me to public service in the first place. And that was what really animated my time as mayor of the city of Stockton, and after losing reelection, I realized that I still wanted to argue and to fight for people in poverty. And I was thinking, ok, California is a golden state, but it’s not golden for all. And California has a Democratic governor, a Democratic house, and Democratic Senate, yet the highest rate of poverty in the country. It has more billionaires than any other country besides the United States and China, but it also has the highest number of people living in poverty. And that paradox just bothers me, as someone who loves California, who believes deeply in the state. So, I decided to launch EPIC to see if we can we actually elevate the policies that end poverty.
And how is EPIC going to do that? How are you going to force that level of change?
Well, the strategy is multifaceted. For one thing, we know that a key issue is narrative change. We know that in this country, we have a weird relationship with people in poverty, where we blame people who are poor for being poor as if they’re lazy or shiftless, or unskilled, or dumb. And none of those things are true. We know we have to change the story and California is also the cultural capital of the world, and also has so much influence as to the ideas of how people think about our society. We want to spend some time with creators and think through how they can tell a more honest story about poverty and truly humanize those living in poverty and help to increase the enthusiasm for change.
The second thing is that we released a report with Stanford that highlights the roadmap. These are the policies that can be enacted to end poverty in California and working with our legislature and our governor, we want to figure out how we can implement them.
And then number three, it’s working with localities. We know, and I know this from experience, that oftentimes local government is the best laboratory for change, the best lever for radical change. So, we want to work with our friends in local offices around things they can do to pilot some of these ideas while we wait for state government to catch up.
Let’s take the first bucket, as narrative change is something we think about a lot at Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. I’m wondering if you have any examples you can point to for the kind of treatment and portrayal of people living in poverty that you would like to see more of in the future?
I think a good example is this Netflix show Maid. I think that’s a wonderful example of humanizing folks in poverty and humanizing folks who have less resources and really showing the deficiencies with the ways in which our safety net treats people without dignity. I tried to do the same in my book, The Deeper the Roots, which is a precursor to EPIC and which really talks about what it was like growing up in poverty and also giving a face to poverty that’s not one of just deprivation and struggle but also one of joy and love and family.
In terms of policy prescriptions, I know you’ve got a couple of things in particular that you’re looking at. Would you talk about those a bit?
A big one is expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit as a form of guaranteed income, coupled with baby bonds, to make sure poverty is not passed down from generation to generation in California. Another big one that doesn’t really cost money is to make sure that folks who qualify for benefits get those benefits easily and seamlessly. We’re also really excited about building worker power and making sure that workers have the right to collectively bargain, particularly in the private sector. We want to make sure that folks are able to get a living wage; I really want to abolish industries that are relying on poverty for profits. I think that’s so abhorrent and antithetical to California representing the American dream. We also know we need more money for housing, that we need more money in the state affordable housing trust. We lead the nation in homelessness and we’re in last place in affordable housing. And those two facts aren’t coincidental.
And do you have any specific timeline for reducing the poverty rate by a certain percentage?
If it was up to me, it would have been done yesterday. I’m not the governor, I’m not the legislature, I’m not in elected office, so I don’t really have the power to implement policy. So, I’d hate to put a timeline on something I can’t control. But I will say that for the next several years, we will be continuing to push our friends to get more wins on the board. And we’ve seen California make great strides under this governor, particularly during the pandemic. So, we view our job as supercharging and accelerating some of those efforts. And hopefully over the next couple years, you begin to see some progress.
And to that point, Governor Newsom has made a lot of dramatic policy changes and I’m wondering if you see the impact of those changes and the overall impact of the pandemic as having changed attitudes at all about people living in poverty? We’ve seen how close we all are to falling off a financial cliff. Has that experience changed the national conversation at all, particularly in regard to the use of unrestricted cash aid?
Absolutely. I think the pandemic has really illustrated to us all your point that so many of us are in very precarious financial situations. The vast majority of us aren’t millionaires, or even “thousandaires,” so many of us have negative net worth or are one paycheck away from financial ruin. And the pandemic also illustrates to us that poverty exacerbates the issues associated with pandemic. So, it’s hard to be climate resilient, it’s hard to be ready to pivot from COVID-19 when we have such pernicious poverty. And I think the work we did in Stockton as the first city to pilot guaranteed income, and then I started Mayors for Guaranteed Income, and now have 63 mayors working with me on this quest, really helped normalize the conversation around that track. Now it’s the cool thing to do. You have the federal government with the stimulus checks, you have the Child Tax Credit. So now the question has moved from, can we give people money to how much money should we give people and to whom should we give the money to.
In terms of getting results in the legislature, what’s your theory of the case? Is it a combination of grassroots pressure and working with policy experts throughout the state?
Every meeting I’ve had with our legislature has been a good one. House Speaker (Anthony) Rendon has been a real leader on this issue and it’s something that’s personal for him, something that he wants to be part of his legacy. So, meeting with him or his staff has given me great hope. My assembly member Isaac Bryan, a young man, a former foster youth, is a real champion for these issues. I call him an EPIC champion. We’ve also spent a lot of time with (Assembly Member) Phil Ting’s staff and (State Senator) Nancy Skinner’s staff, the budget chairs, and with the members themselves. Every conversation we’ve had, we’ve met lawmakers who are really passionate about this and are really excited about this bold, audacious challenge and want to be a part of it. I think people are hungry for something that feels bold. This feels like it’s the right time.