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Low-Income Stockton Residents Praise City’s ‘Universal Basic Income’ Program

Rich Ibarra / Capital Public Radio

Tomas Vargas, a recipient of Stockton's "universal basic income" program. This city is paying select residents $500 a month, with more or less no strings attached, as part of a campaign to help families that are struggling with poverty.

Rich Ibarra / Capital Public Radio

Stockton has made resident Tomas Vargas a guarantee: The city will pay him $500 a month, for free, more or less no strings attached.

It’s money that he’s received since February as part of Stockton’s “universal basic income” program.

Vargas, who lives with his fiancée and two children, was chosen at random to be a recipient, along with 125 other low-income families as part of a pilot program called Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, or SEED.

He and the other families are required to live in a neighborhood where the average annual income is below $46,000, which Vargas meets, earning just $31,000.

That extra money has changed his life. “It makes a difference on choices I can make,” he said, adding that he daughter needs tutoring, and he can now take her.

There is a national debate over the merits of Stockton’s “UBI” program, however, with advocates championing it as a way to lift up families in poverty, and detractors arguing that it makes recipients hesitant to pursue full-time employment.

Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs says there are already signs that the program works. “I think the data shows that people make good decisions, people are healthier, happier,” he said.

The mayor is scheduled to discuss the UBI program during Thursday’s “State of the City” address.

Sukhi Samra is SEED’s director and says Stockton is the perfect place for the experiment. “Nearly one in 4 Stocktonians are living in poverty. We’re 18th in the nation for child poverty. For us, this is about being able to help as many folks as we can while advocating for a guaranteed income at a statewide or national levels,” Samra said.

Funding for the $3 million program was provided by foundations and private donors. SEED will continue through July of next year.

Vargas says he was previously getting welfare and food stamps, but that “UBI” is truly is a “big stress relief.” And he also knows that how he uses the money will impact whether others get a chance.

“That’s why I’m trying so hard to make sure that I’m doing something positive with it because it is a big impact on what’s going to happen next,” Vargas said.

Rich Ibarra

Contributing Central Valley/Foothills Reporter

As the Central Valley correspondent, Rich Ibarra covers San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced counties, along with the foothill areas including Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. He covers politics, the economy and issues affecting the region.   Read Full Bio 

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