- At 28 year old, Mayor Michael Tubbs is spearheading a basic income pilot in his hometown of Stockton, California.
- Tubbs said the program, which distributes $500 monthly stipends to the city’s poorest families, is already showing signs of success.
- The mayor believes basic income could be a solution for cities of all sizes and income levels, but he doesn’t consider it a panacea to poverty.
- One of the challenges of basic income in America, he said, is that people find it hard to empathize with those who don’t share their appearance.
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At age 28, Michael Tubbs easily qualifies as a political wunderkind. He’s received two degrees from Stanford, interned at the White House, secured a $10,000 donation from Oprah for his city council campaign, and been endorsed as a mayoral candidate by former president Barack Obama.
He also grew up in Stockton, California, a city he describes as “a place people run from rather than come back to.”
After being elected mayor of Stockton in 2017, Tubbs began floating a radical basic income policy to get the city back on track. The program is now more than two months underway and showing signs of success — but Tubbs thinks there’s a reason why it hasn’t caught on in other parts of the US.
Unlike homogeneous Scandinavian countries, Tubbs said, America has struggled to contend with widespread racial and economic diversity. This lack of empathy, he said, may have slowed our willingness to consider a universal basic income policy.
What sets Stockton apart is a combination of vision and desperation — a city on the brink of collapse and a mayor willing to try something drastic to hold it together.
Basic income policies have gained favor in Europe, but less so in the US
In February, Stockton began distributing $500 monthly stipends to its poorest residents through a basic income policy, which essentially pays someone for being alive. The policy’s critics claim that it reduces the incentive for people to find jobs, while supporters say it helps lift families out of poverty.
The idea has mostly gained favor in Europe, where both Finland and Barcelona have launched basic income trials, and Sweden has set aside around $325,000 for a pilot experiment. In 2017, Ontario, Canada, also adopted a basic income program for around 4,000 participants, though the trial was cancelled about a year later.
But Tubbs said he didn’t give much thought to whether his idea would be controversial. “My team was more nervous than I was,” he said. “I honestly will tell you this, I didn’t really see much risk.”
What made him nervous, he said, was how untenable Stockton’s impoverished neighborhoods had become.
Stockton’s basic income pilot is showing small signs of success
The child of a teenage mother and incarcerated father, Tubbs grew up poor in an underfunded school system. As a college student, he lost a cousin to gun violence. In his lifetime, he’s had more men in his family sent to jail than to college.
In 2012, Stockton became the first city in the US to declare bankruptcy. Today, about a quarter of its population still lives below the federal poverty line. As mayor of a city that had essentially hit rock bottom, Tubbs was excited by the prospect of trying something different to combat inequality.
“I came into doing the pilot without a fully formed perspective — or as fully formed as it is now — but really more out of curiosity,” he said. “If this was a solution that could work, I wanted to test it out.”
But first, he had to get constituents on board. One benefit of governing a small city, he said, is that he could explain his idea to people one-on-one.
“Every time you do something new, it’s scary,” he said. “You have to convince people that, ‘No, it’s going to be okay. We’re going to be safe. And we’ll all be better off for it.'”
Tubbs’ basic income plan gives monthly stipends to 130 residents living at or below the city’s median income line (around $46,000 annually). The trial is expected to last for 18 months, and the stipends are distributed through the mail in the form of debit cards.
Because participants are randomly selected, Tubbs is forbidden from knowing who they are, but he said he’s heard anecdotally that people are using their money to pay their gas and electric bills, get their cars fixed, and take their children to the movies.
“I was very excited to see it already working and making a difference in so many people’s lives,” he said. “I’m now much more resolute in this idea that, if it’s not a panacea … it should be considered as one of the many solutions to ensure that people have an economic floor.”
America has been slow to test basic income because of its struggle with diversity, Tubbs said
According to Tubbs, there’s a reason why American cities haven’t entertained the solution of basic income before. Many Americans, he said, struggle to recognize that one person’s economic mobility can benefit another — something he believes other nations have figured out.
Tubbs believes that Scandinavian countries have recognized the need for a more robust social safety net — including universal healthcare and extensive parental leave policies — which makes it easier to approve other radical interventions down the line.
One explanation for these progressive policies, Tubbs said, is that Scandinavian countries are fairly homogeneous compared to the US. “In our country, we really have to contend with this idea of ‘the other,'” he said.
In his lifetime, Tubbs has found that people often conflate appearance with commonality. When people look different, he said, they tend to believe they have less in common, making it more difficult to empathize.
In his speech last week at the TED conference in Vancouver, Canada, Tubbs said the destiny of his city is “tied up in everyone — particularly those who are left on the side of the road.” His basic income policy is a product of this thinking: that a city that works for its poorest members can work for all.
Chicago could launch its own basic income pilot
With his wife expecting their first child, Tubbs said his mission to improve the lives of people in Stockton feels even more urgent as of late.
“Childcare costs are real,” he said. “We’re now looking at how are we going to save up to have somebody help us watch our child. It definitely has made me that much more passionate and that much more impatient with the status quo.”
Though Tubbs sees basic income as a solution to poverty, a city doesn’t need to be as poor as Stockton to benefit from the program, he said. The mayor also said basic income could work for larger cities struggling to combat inequality.
A task force in Chicago recently recommended that the city launch its own basic income pilot, which would provide 1,000 residents with $1,000 monthly payments for 18 months. Tubbs said he’s shared details of his experiment with Chicago, which he sees as a natural extension of his work.
“Small to medium sized cities have a role to play in terms of pushing our democracy forward,” he said. By testing out new ideas for larger cities to emulate, he said, they just might provide the tools for building fairer societies.