Stockton’s city government will become the first in the country to pilot a universal basic income program. Funded through a tech research organization, 25-75 families will receive a $500 stipend over the course of one to three years.The program is gathering support from Silicon Valley but faces many critics including leading economists on the left.
Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs spoke with Beth Ruyak on Insight about the S.E.E.D. [Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration] pilot program, and explains how it will work and his hopes for it to expand.
[*This is an abbreviated transcript. Some questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.*]
BETH RUYAK – This is essentially a $1 million experiment… why try it?
MAYOR TUBBS – Well, it's not really an experiment, it's a demonstration, I think. Especially in the last year as being mayor, and people calling the office, people need help with affording rent and working harder and harder and falling further and further behind, it seemed like a wise idea to use private dollars to see what would $500 a month do for ordinary working families in Stockton.
BETH RUYAK – Can you lay out more details of the plan?
MAYOR TUBBS – Part of the plan is that we're going to spend the next nine months in the design phase, so we're recruiting a project manager now. We'll spend the next nine months with a stakeholder team of community members to figure out all the details. So the only details we have now is, we have $1 million, and the idea is we give folks $500 a month for three years to about 30 families, or give 100 families $500 a month for one year. We still have to parse out what are the qualifications, how do the people apply, those things. That's what the next nine months of the design phase is for.
For more information there's a website – StocktonDemonstration.org – that lays out where the money is coming from, what's the big idea, is there other research that shows this idea works. The funding comes from The Economic Security Project.
BETH RUYAK – Given the one year or three year options, which do you like better?
MAYOR TUBBS – I'm getting a little ahead of my team, I think my personal preference is for three years. There's a real motivation to affect as many families as possible. If we're able to raise more money so that we could get to 100 families for three years, I'd be really happy about that.
BETH RUYAK – You were born and raised in Stockton. How would this money have made a difference in your family? How would your family have handled $500 a month for 1 year?
MAYOR TUBBS – That money would have stabilized some things for my mother. It would have allowed her, maybe, to go back to school, or not to have to stress over how the bills were paid. I think it's not just my family, but it's most working families are finding it very, very hard to pay for necessities. We have the fastest rising rent market in the nation, utility bills are going up, and people's wages aren't.
I'm sure with $500, folks will get their car fixed, or take care of some medical issues, or save for a rainy day. And I'm really excited to show the world how resourceful the folks in Stockton are if given a little more opportunity.
BETH RUYAK – Why has no one else done this before Stockton?
MAYOR TUBBS – I think there is a little bit of fear, right? When you do something different or novel, of course there comes some criticism. But that's what leadership is. If it was always about waiting for someone else to do something, I never would have run for mayor in the first place. So I'm excited that in Stockton we're taking a bold leadership stance, and saying 'hey let's try it.'" The status quo isn't working anyway, so why not try something better and different?
BETH RUYAK – Some people have also suggested that part of the reason is that you're young. You're a person in your 20s who believes that a lot of things are possible and some risk is reasonable in trying something brand new. Do you think that's a factor?
MAYOR TUBBS – It may be my age, but I think it's more my personal experience just being from a working poor family. I remember seeing how hard my mother, my friends, their parents all worked, and the fact that the amount of effort doesn't necessarily equate to how much money you make, and just seeing how people struggled. I think that's what really drives and motivates me. Being young does help, because it's like, we're in this position now… why not do something?
BETH RUYAK – What about a work requirement? Do you ever see this kind of program replacing a welfare program?
MAYOR TUBBS – For me it's more additive, enhancing the existing safety net, but not replacing it. I think the power is really trusting people to be their own best actors and knowing what's best for them. And also, broadening the definition of "work." I would hate to put [in] a work requirement and that precludes someone from using this money to be a caregiver for a child or a parent, for example. The vast majority of folks who are struggling to pay bills are actually working. So the work requirement is kind of already embedded because that's how people are living and surviving in the current status quo.
BETH RUYAK – How would you measure outcomes or success?
MAYOR TUBBS – Y Combinator is doing something in Oakland that's a real rigorous, scientific study with [1,000 families receiving $1,000 per month for up to five years, while 2,000 more families will receive $50 a month for comparison.] That's going to be the more data component. I'm much more interested in the qualitative piece, and the storytelling, showcasing to people what folks would do with No Strings Attached [money], something as small as $500 a month. There will be some controls, but it's not really an experiment, it's more of a demonstration to showcase how folks are smart and resourceful if given an opportunity to make life choices.