What Stockton’s UBI Experiment Can Teach Us About Surviving Coronavirus

By Josh Marcus

Michael Tubbs, the 29-year-old mayor of Stockton, has the kind of life that, if you squint, could convince you the American dream is alive and well. He grew up in Stockton, the son of a single mother and an incarcerated father. He spent his lunch money buying SAT prep books, studying hungry. He eventually attended Stanford and interned at the White House. In 2016, he became the city’s first black mayor.

His mother, meanwhile, worked at a health clinic and did overtime shifts most weekends. She never took vacation or got her nails done; her time was never her own. Now, during a pandemic, Tubbs is piloting a radical policy that could’ve changed both their lives.

Stockton, with leadership from UC Berkeley alumni, has undertaken one of the first major universal basic income (UBI) programs in U.S. history, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED). Since early 2019, a group of 130 residents making below the city’s median income get $500 a month, no strings attached. Tubbs believes it will prove good government can guarantee most people have something without making some people sacrifice everything.

“It would’ve meant the world to my mother. It would’ve meant that she was less anxious and less stressed,” he says. “It would’ve allowed her to have a more human experience.”

Lori Ann Ospina, a recent Berkeley grad who helped design SEED and is now the associate director of Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor & Employment (IRLE), hoped the program could serve as a model for how to tackle America’s rampant inequality.

“There’s a rising consensus that the status quo isn’t working,” Ospina says. “One of my priorities was really to mirror it as close to the intended policy as possible, so I really tried to emphasize the universality component of it, and not really try to be overly selective or targeted to who we were making it available to.”

When Mayor Tubbs kicked off SEED last February, the phones rang constantly. People accused him of being a “socialist” and giving handouts to black people.

Stockton, an inland port connecting the San Joaquin Valley, San Francisco, and the wider world, has always been a bellwether. When boom times come—the Gold Rush, World War II, the tech and housing bubbles—Stockton thrives. When the world goes bust, Stockton gets hit harder. After the Great Recession, it was, for a time, America’s foreclosure capital and the largest U.S. municipality ever to go bankrupt.

With SEED testing an idea that has been the next big thing in politics for generations, Stockton has become a symbol of the times once again. It offers one model of what post-pandemic America could look like if we aim to make the country more equal as we strive to rebuild it.

A few years ago, before the coronavirus hit and a Republican administration agreed to send millions of Americans $1200 relief checks, UBI was gaining momentum but remained controversial. Supporters, especially in Silicon Valley, thought it could cure lingering inequality and offset jobs lost due to automation. Many weren’t convinced though.

When Tubbs kicked off SEED last February, the phones rang constantly. People accused him of being “crazy,”“socialist,” and giving handouts to black people. Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly called SEED “insane.”

“It was ugly,” Tubbs says. “We realized what we were doing was so much bigger than us. When you’re the first, it’s a bit scary, but you have to have those conversations.”

It’s a conversation that most people are allergic to having. It means talking about race, class, the status quo, and how things got the way they are. It means asking why most people, even during a (once-)booming economy, were just one emergency away from a financial crisis, or why wealth is so unequal between races.

The aid couldn’t have come at a better time. Stockton, like everywhere else, is facing an economic crisis from COVID-19.

“We as a society have allowed ourselves to be convinced that if you give people resources or you help to lift them up, that they’ll exploit it,” Ospina says. “I don’t think the research reinforces that idea at all. I think it’s politics.”

As SEED heads towards its July conclusion (Tubbs hopes to extend it), researchers evaluating the program are finding that most spend their $500 on the mundane things usually just out of reach: transportation, utilities, healthcare, debt. Nearly 40 percent of tracked spending went to food. One participant bought dentures. Another cooked her son a birthday crab boil and bought him new jeans.

“People assume that folks don’t know how to budget and they don’t know what they need,” says Amy Castro Baker, an associate professor of social policy at University of Pennsylvania, who is helping evaluate SEED. “Poverty, by definition, is a lack of cash, a lack of resources, not a lack of knowledge.”

The aid couldn’t have come at a better time. Stockton, like everywhere else, is facing an economic crisis from COVID-19 in addition to a public health one, and hopes it can show to escape it.

“It means everything, particularly as people are being laid off, when hours are being cut, when people are stressed and anxious,” Tubbs says. “The federal government really has the power, if it is a priority, to provide for its citizens as we’re doing now with the $1200 stimulus.”

Despite promising early results, UBI, as ever, remains in the “what if” stage. There are ongoing or planned programs in Oakland; Jackson, Mississippi; and the Bronx, New York. Newark, Chicago, Philadelphia and Milwaukee are considering UBI tests, too. Still, Berkeley’s Ospina says more, bigger, longer studies are needed before drawing overarching conclusions about UBI in America.

“We can put money into people’s pockets, but the extractive means of corporate power are just going to be there to take it back out,” says Madeline Neighly.

What’s more, even though presidential candidate Andrew Yang made UBI a signature campaign issue, helping give the policy mainstream attention, there are still significant disagreements over what it should look like, and how to fund it.

Some, like Yang, think UBI could be used to replace or shrink longstanding federal welfare programs. Others say UBI should work in concert with them, and not distract from the urgent need to reform healthcare, education, housing, and job access programs; otherwise, the conditions that produced poverty in the first place could go untouched.

“UBI is not the answer to everything,” says Stacia Martin-West, a University of Tennessee social work professor helping evaluate SEED. “There are important parts of the social safety net that need to exist alongside of it so we don’t reproduce forms of inequality.”

Those larger issues are why the Economic Security Project (ESP), which helped fund and design SEED, is advocating for anti-monopoly policies and tax reform alongside UBI to make the larger economy fairer.

“We can put money into people’s pockets, but the extractive means of corporate power are just going to be there to take it back out,” says Madeline Neighly, a Berkeley Law alum and director of guaranteed income at ESP.

The idea of UBI in America dates back to Thomas Paine in the 1700s and has accumulated surprisingly diverse advocates since: Milton Friedman, Martin Luther King, The Black Panthers, Richard Nixon, Elon Musk. A UBI bill even passed the House of Representatives twice in the ‘70s, but America’s lingering unease with welfare stopped it from going any further.

“The fact that we are even having conversations about giving people money is already showing that the system is shifting,” says Aisha Nyandoro.

Coronavirus stuck an adrenaline needle into this conversation. In the span of weeks, even Wall Street Republicans like Steve Mnuchin and Mitt Romney were talking about how people needed cash directly from the government.

The virus, however, is not the great equalizer some say it is. Black and brown people are being infected at disproportionate rates from COVID-19 because health and wealth are distributed disproportionately. Still Aisha Nyandoro, who has led a $1000-a-month UBI pilot for black mothers in Mississippi since 2018, says the conversation has dramatically changed.

“The fact that we are even having conversations about giving people money is already showing that the system is shifting,” she says. “[Coronavirus] is highlighting inequality and helping us all realize the have and have nots are a lot closer than a lot of people realize.”

Coronavirus is far too bleak to talk about silver linings. Tens of thousands of Americans have already died, and many more will die before we return to normal, if that’s even possible anymore. No silver linings, then, but the coronavirus will leave legacies, and one may be the way it made the country reconsider its economic foundation.

“Every century or so we find a way to be more humane, more civilized, and extend the safety net,” Mayor Tubbs says. “300 years ago, I was literally property. Sometimes it takes a pandemic, a crisis, or in the case of slavery, a war, to get where we need to be.”

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