Soon after Michael Tubbs was sworn in as mayor of Stockton, Calif., he set his first objective: Disrupt the status quo. The city he grew up in, like so many others across America, had hit hard times, and the Stanford-educated native son sought to bring his millennial moxie and Silicon Valley bona fides to the gig.
Following his January 2017 inauguration, the then-26-year-old mayor tasked his team with researching the most radical policy interventions they could find, especially around poverty reduction. Tubbs sought to innovate in a city where nearly a quarter of residents live below the federal poverty level. The big idea? Something called “basic income.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d heard of the concept.
“In college, I was fascinated by Martin Luther King,” Tubbs explains to The Root. “I remember in my sophomore year, reading Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, where King talked about either a federal work guarantee or a universal basic income. This was right before he was murdered. It always stayed in the back of my mind, like, Wow, whatever happened to that? Is that what the Poor People’s March was going to be about?”
Around the same time, Stockton’s youngest mayor struck up a conversation with some folks from the Economic Security Project, a network of activists, policymakers, academics and technologists that is co-chaired by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. The organization happened to be looking for a city for a basic-income demonstration and had $1 million to invest. It almost seemed like fate.
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Universal Basic Income: What Is It?
Universal basic income is an economic theory dating back to Thomas Paine and the American Revolution. It is the idea that a citizen receives unconditional funds simply for being a member of a community. In essence, it’s “free money”—no strings attached. Proponents of a basic income in the United States propose providing an income roughly equal to the poverty line (about $12,000 for an individual per year).
“I really want to have a conversation around what we as a community, what we as a country, receive as part of our social contract,” Tubbs explains. “In California, 1 in 2 people can’t afford a $400 emergency. Like, $400 would knock them out, whether it’s hospital bills, car notes, kids, college. That’s incredibly sad. So that’s my motivation.”
The gist of UBI is supplying an entitlement to a member of a group, and it’s already being done in the United States. For instance, it is applied in the oil-dividend check that Alaskans receive each year, and in the monies divided among the Eastern Band of Cherokees from casino revenues, which approximate a guaranteed income.
Finland and Canada started to test out UBI programs last year, and the city of Oakland, Calif., initiated a similar program with tech outfit Y Combinator. In places where UBI has already been tested, research shows that most people invest in their children in some way.
In the case of Stockton, at least 30-100 residents would receive between $500 and $1,000 each month through the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, or SEED. The diverse bedroom community in the northern Central Valley would serve as an incubator to test the program in what Tubbs deems the “perfect American city.”
Technology Meets Black Lives Matter
The concept of a guaranteed income continues to be all the rage in Silicon Valley, where tech titans such as Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have long proselytized about its benefits, perhaps in as much an effort to be forward-thinking as to stave off criticism as automation and technological innovation continue to take jobs from human beings.
Some, however, buy into UBI from a different place.
“I come to this idea from the black freedom movement, where both the Black Panther Party and the 10-point platform call for guaranteed jobs or guaranteed income,” says Dorian Warren, co-chair of the Economic Security Project and president of the Center for Community Change Action. “Also, Dr. King in the last year of his life had come around to support the idea of guaranteed income, which is the same as universal basic income; it’s just different language.”
Warren says that ESP partnered with Tubbs because he’s young and visionary. The organization is working closely with the mayor’s office to define the parameters of SEED (i.e., how will participants be chosen—will it just be those struggling economically or be truly income universal? How will research be taken? How will results be captured?).
“It’s an experiment,” says Warren, “so let’s try it and see what happens. Let’s see if health outcomes improve in certain communities. Let’s see if people might not have to rely on public assistance in a traditional way if they have this guarantee. Let’s see if we create new artists and entrepreneurs willing to try something because they don’t have to figure our how they’re going to put bread on the table tonight.”
Criticism and “the Undeserving Poor”
Unsurprisingly, the idea of giving money to impoverished people with no strings attached is not the most popular idea with conservatives. Amazingly, the concept was tested by Republican President Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1971 in several U.S. cities. The results showed that there was no adverse effect on work ethic. (Fun fact: Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld actually ran the experiments.)
Tubbs comes to the conversation naturally, having grown up poor in Stockton and having his community vilified when he got to Stanford.
“I grew up around a lot of people who were quote-unquote poor, but they worked harder than anyone I knew,” said Tubbs, who was raised by a single mother (his father was incarcerated). “They worked two or three jobs. Bone-tired. Raising kids. Banding together, running basketball leagues. And then when I got to college, I started hearing these conversations about [trifling] poor people, and it was the exact opposite of the people I grew up with.”
Tubbs has already tangled with several prominent right-wingers on social media as news of SEED has gained traction. In February, former game show host Chuck Woolery tweeted his disdain for the program, branding it as “free money for the poor” in a “bankrupt city.”
Tubbs’ response, however, set him straight:
On Tuesday, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin tweeted, “You’ve got to be kidding...” and linked to a conservative website that described SEED as giving away “money for nothing.”
Again, Tubbs had a timely retort for Palin, saying that SEED is actually modeled at least in part on the Alaska Permanent Fund in her home state, where qualified Alaskans … get money for nothing.
For those who brand it socialism, Warren notes that plenty of folks in the U.S. get free money on a regular basis.
“We give rich people money all the time. We give them mortgage deductions and we don’t ask questions,” he charges. “We just accept that. If you’re middle-class or even rich, we’re just going to give you more money! ’Cause you bought a house. So we give people money for all sorts of things. And this is really a more simple and elegant idea.”
The truth is that the narrative of poverty or anti-poverty programs has become racialized and distorted to the point where the poor—especially the black poor—are seen as shameful, sinful, lazy and undeserving. This contempt feeds stereotypes like “the welfare queen” and “Negroes buying lobster with food stamps,” which are true American archetypes. Yet, thus far nothing has really alleviated entrenched poverty in the United States, where 2 out of 3 black kids born poor will remain poor, where ex-offenders coming home cannot get a leg up, where a $400 emergency can upend lives.
So far the SEED program has raised $1.25 million, and a full-time program director has been hired. Organizers are currently looking to find a university to partner with the program on research. Tubbs expects the program to begin in the fall or winter of 2018.
“I think the majority of our participants will be working. Oftentimes our hardest workers in the community, and in society, are often paid the least. I’m hoping that $500 a month can allow somebody to become a caregiver if their parent gets sick. But I also hope it helps a single mother who’s struggling with the cost of child care to get back in the labor market,” Tubbs says.
In addition to bringing some dignity and stability to those struggling to make ends meet, SEED may even serve as an opportunity to disrupt how we view poor people.
“Our end goal is to change the conversation we have around poverty, the working poor and the lower middle class in this country,” Tubbs says. “I think far too often, we paint folks in these caricatures, that they’re not deserving of opportunity. But I want to elevate the discussion, pick it up where Dr. King left off. No one should have the floor pulled out from the bottom of them in the richest country in the world.”