Guaranteed Income with Stockton, California Mayor Michael Tubbs
Host Angela Glover Blackwell in conversation with Stockton, California Mayor Michael Tubbs
In this episode of Radical Imagination we visit Stockton, California. It was known as the nation’s foreclosure capital during the 2008 recession. Today, it’s the first city in the country to try a guaranteed income as a strategy to reduce inequality and boost economic security. This bold experiment gives residents a minimum monthly salary regardless of income or employment status.
Angela Glover Blackwell sits down with Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, who became the first black mayor in the city’s history at age 26, to talk about his income initiative and what lessons holds for the nation.
Angela (AGB): (00:05)
Welcome to the Radical Imagination podcast where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host Angela Glover Blackwell. Today we look at an idea that has become increasingly popular in recent years. It's called universal basic income. In case you've never heard of it...
(news clip): (00:25)
"It's where the government agrees to pay a minimum salary to each and every member of society, regardless of earnings or employment, no strings attached."
In most versions of the idea, it's a relatively small amount, maybe 500 or a thousand dollars a month, and the purpose is to give people more of a safety net, especially in a time of technological advancements that threatened to make a lot of jobs obsolete. Earlier this year, the City of Stockton, in California's central Valley became the first in the nation to try this out. It would involve a privately funded 18 month initiative that will provide over 100 of it's residents with $500 per month. There's a lot of interest in this experiment, as well as other developments in Stockton, but things didn't always look this promising.
(news clip): (01:15)
"Stockton California has officially gone bust. Judge's ruling the failing city can enter bankruptcy..."
During the 2008 recession, the city of just over 300,000 people made headlines when it declared bankruptcy.
(news clip): (01:29)
"They have the second highest rate of foreclosures in the country, and now Stockton is on the verge of becoming the largest city in the U.S. to declare bankruptcy."
Speaker 2: (01:38)
Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs was in his late teens during that time. Since those difficult years, the city has come a long way towards financial recovery, and in 2016, at 26, Tubbs became the first Black mayor in Stockton's history and the youngest mayor of any large U.S. city. Mayor Tubbs joins us today to talk about growing up in Stockton, becoming mayor, and his guaranteed income initiative -- the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, also known as SEED. Mayor Tubbs, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Mayor Tubbs: (02:12)
Thanks for having me.
For those who are not familiar with it, tell us about Stockton.
Mayor Tubbs: (02:17)
So Stockton California is home. It's a city in the Central Valley, as you mentioned, it's about 320,000 people. You can get more people in Stockton then in Newark, New Jersey, about as much as Cincinnati, about as much as St. Louis. It's the 60th or 61st largest city in our country. It's incredibly diverse. The oldest Sikh temple in North America, on this continent, is in South Stockton. At one point Stockton had more Filipino people living here than anywhere else in the world outside the Philippines, it's a diverse city where people from across the world in this country have come looking for a better life.
Before we dive into the idea of universal basic income, I want to go back to how it all started for you. What was life like for you and your family while you were growing up?
Mayor Tubbs: (03:04)
Um, so Stockton has five or six focus areas. In terms of areas that the police department have identified as areas that have historically and currently have high rates of crime, which means also have high rates of poverty, low rates of opportunity, ect. And I've lived in five of those six areas growing up. My mother, single mother, hardworking woman, had me as a teenager, but we grew up in poverty and then we worked our way up to the working poor. The neighborhoods I grew up in were neighborhoods that we talk about, neighborhoods that have more liquor stores and grocery stores or check cashing places in banks. Um, but great people and people who are fighting every single day and still believed in the idea if that if you worked hard, if you got your education, you can be successful. And that's kind of where I got a lot of my ethos from, from seeing people work two jobs, their sons and daughters could play sports or go to ballet or have all these different cultural enrichment. The high school I went to was majority Latino, 70 percent of my high school was Latino. And I think the diversity I grew up with also helped me understand that just because I didn't experience something personally, it's still very easy to empathize with other humans and common humanity. So I'm very thankful for my upbringing here in the city of Stockton, because when we talk about macro issues from basic income, which we'll get into later, or even micro issues in terms of closing out in liquor stores and opening health clinics as we did when I was on city council. It's all deeply personal. It's all informed with what some would call it, a troubled or or a difficult upbringing.
What do you remember about that time when the recession hit and bankruptcy was declared?
Mayor Tubbs: (04:43)
So in '08' when the recession hit, right before the city was booming, so we were building an arena and a ballpark and a promenade where people could park their yachts. I remember in high school say who got yachts in Stockton, I was like, we've got yachts in Stockton...that's cool I guess. And then I remember that, I wrote one of my college essays about it, and it said lowest in literacy and highest in crime. It could be just because we spiked in homicides so we were also ranked the 99th of the hundred Metro areas in terms of literacy rates of our population. And then that fall, I interned in the white house and one of my cousins ended up being victim of a homicide in Stockton. And then I remember the next year the conversation being around bankruptcy, laying off cops, we can't pay for this, we can't pay for that. I remember it almost came out of nowhere, but also remember particularly I was running for city council and talking to people. They would say things like bankruptcy, we've been bankrupt.
Mayor Tubbs: (05:43)
No, I realize that for a lot of folks in neighborhoods, they were saying there is almost a moral bankruptcy that allowed for decisions to get to the point now where we have to declare municipal bankruptcy and that we just allow young men of color to die with impunity without an outcry, that we allow neighborhoods to be disinvested in. And that's kind of what rooted our campaign for city council, is really this idea like bankruptcy is a symptom. We're declaring a fiscal bankruptcy as a symptom of a deeper moral and community bankruptcy and how do we come together to address it.
It's a little surprising, that having been exposed to Stanford and all the opportunities that came with that, that you decided to come back to Stockton. Tell me about that and how your mom felt about it and what kind of decision making that took?
Mayor Tubbs: (06:27)
Yeah. Well actually growing up, because of the neighborhoods I described and some of the poverty, the narrative was always to be successful meant you left Stockton. So it was deeply ingrained, that folks who stayed in Stockton cause they had no choice. Some of the narrative was that maybe they weren't smart, maybe they weren't talented, Stockton was a dead end. So I positioned myself to always have strong Stockton pride and to be proud of where I'm from, and to just shout it from the mountains tops, "I'm from Stockton," but I never thought I'd live in Stockton in adulthood. And that was the plan though, especially when I got into Stanford, and my mom said, "Oh yes, hallelujah," all the sacrifices we made, the double shifts and things that are worth it. Um, cause I, did go to a school like Stanford and have an opportunity open and then there was also a sense of like duty or calling, in that there's no way a lot of things have happened for me are so improbable. There's no way, it was just for me to be comfortable or just for me to be individually successful. I remember sharing that with my mom, and she was like, "Oh no, you've done enough. You've started summer programs while in school. You could come back and visit, you could do motivational speeches here." But she said something. She said, "if anyone else had the opportunities you had, they wouldn't come back." And I was like, "that may be true mom, but that may also be part of the problem." She rolled her eyes and said, "man, your supposed to go make some money." But then once you figured out I was serious and my mind was made up, she was on the campaign knocking on doors, posting signs.
(news clip): (07:56)
"Well out with the incumbent and in with the future, Michael Tubbs wins the Stockton's mayoral race in a landslide and the 26-year-old becomes one of the youngest mayors in the country.
Tell me what it felt like when you actually won the election? Being the first Black mayor of this city, and coming into it at a time when it was still emerging from bankruptcy.
Mayor Tubbs: (08:15)
It felt like the city had really turned a page and a corner, because the city is only 10 percent African American, which means there was a multiethnic coalition that elected me but also vindicated, I think the work we did as a council member. So I remember being super excited and some people tried to be sad because it was also the day of the presidential election. I looked at everyone, I said, look, today I'm happy. We worked hard for this, like for once Stockton is leading and showing what can happen in a place of hope. I think my wife posted tonight we celebrated, tomorrow we mourn...on her Facebook. We understand that nationally, but thankfully in this case, due to federalism at the local level, there's a lot of timing controls, so we've been able to protect our immigrants and we've been able to really invest in the poorest folks in our community versus the richest folks. So I felt just super excited, but also just knew it was a big job. It's a lot of work to do. Something like, okay, how are we going to get some things done?
It's a lot on your shoulders and I really appreciate that you're ready to stretch and be creative and ask how do we address these issues? What needs to happen, not what we need to do with the meager resources we have, but what needs to happen and now that you're mayor, you've put the guaranteed income initiative at the top of your agenda. How does this initiative work and how do you think it's going to benefit the Stockton residents?
Mayor Tubbs: (09:36)
What's interesting is that it has, through community and national interest, it has emerged as the top of the agenda. I said, you guys, we have eight years max, time is ticking, and the biggest issue we face in this city is poverty. Poverty is the root cause of everything else we're trying to solve for. So what is a policy that we can do to really address poverty? I said "and give me crazy things," and then my staff, true to form, came back with the idea of a guaranteed income?
Speaker 4: (10:15)
And I was interested because I remember reading about basic income or guaranteed income from studying Dr. King in college.
(news clip): (10:22)
"If the Negro is to gain the economic security that he needs. Now, one of the answers that seems to me is a guaranteed annual income, a guaranteed minimum income for all people and for all families of our country."
Mayor Tubbs: (10:52)
I remember reading, "Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community?," my freshman year in college. There was a section towards the end where he says, we try to solve poverty by these other means: education, housing, health, which are definitely important, definitely need to be solved for. But he said, but I think for poverty, guaranteed income. But what he called for was something in true King fashion, that was even more of a stretch of the radical imagination. He said, not $500 a month, but something pegged at the national median income and keeping up with inflation. So every year it would increase. It provided just a floor for everybody who lives in the United States.
(news clip): (11:27)
"This need and this something, which I believe will go a long, long way toward dealing with the Negroes economic problem and the economic problems many other poor people confront in our nation."
Mayor Tubbs: (11:40)
I was always fascinated with how this part of his legacy or his thinking was left out, and the cause of that, and always thinking it would be really cool one day to be part of that discussion. And luckily at the same time we were having that discussion, I met the folks at the economic security project -- our initial fund there for the SEED program, who said they were looking for a pilot for the basic income, essentially 130 families have been selected. for 18 months. They're given $500 a month on prepaid debit cards and these families that were selected randomly with our research partners in a way that they reflect the city's diversity. So there's Black people, but there's also Latino people, and Asian people and White people, and old people, and young people, and students, and working people, and non-working people, and unemployed people. And the only criterion was you had to live at or below the city's median.
Mayor Tubbs: (12:31)
So there's people who make more then the city median, people that make below. What I've learned over the past 18 months is that the majority of people are struggling in our current economic system that we shouldn't put too much energy around shrinking down with possible solutions, but spend all our energy putting everything on the board and say, how do we solve for this problem? Or 1 in 2 Americans can't afford one $400 emergency or where wages have risen 6 percent between 1979 - 2013, like where people are working themselves to death literally and can't afford necessities like rent. So, I'm excited about the pilot as one of several things we're doing in the city to really think about how do we make sure the economy works for everyone and how do we make sure that someone's humanity or their dignity isn't just attached to what they produce, but their dignity is inherent and because they have inherent dignity, they should have the opportunity to contribute.
It's an exciting initiative. $500. Why that amount?
Mayor Tubbs: (13:33)
It's so funny. I literally, I'm pretty sure I did back of the envelope calculation around how much I pay for utilities a month? It was about $500 and given that it's privately funded, we wanted the resources to stretch as many people as possible. Um, but we also wanted to do something that was meaningful. And then the stat that 1 in 2 Americans can't afford one $400 emergency. We were like, okay. And then $500 also because it's similar to what some folks get in the earned income tax credit.
And exactly how were the people selected? You talked about the diversity, but did you just randomly get that full spread?
Mayor Tubbs: (14:09)
No, we have a great evaluation team led by Dr. Stacia West at the University of Tennessee and Dr. Amy Cashwell Baker from University of Pennsylvania. And they developed an algorithm that identified houses within the census tracks that were out of the city's median . And we sent like 3000 of those envelopes out. I think a thousand responded back, from that thousand, they removed names, but kept some of the demographic information and kind of spit out something that was most reflective of the city. Um, given the sample size.
Coming up on Radical Imagination, Mayor Tubbs talks about the challenges he faced when getting his guaranteed income initiative off the ground. Stay with us. More to come when we get back.
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And we're back with Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs. When we left off, we had talked about the thought and reasoning behind the SEED initiative, but could you talk about the challenges that you have faced in getting the support you needed to get the SEED initiative off the ground?
Mayor Tubbs: (16:13)
That was a challenge. I think another challenge is just stretching the imagination. This idea that we can trust people to make good decisions and also just really battling these tropes of working poor and poor people as dumb or as not talented, material circumstances of their economic life are solely the products of their decisions and really having to push back on that and saying, well no, it's not about that, it's about us. Do you trust yourself? Do you trust yourself to do good things with $500, most of the time? Cause sometimes you might want to buy a TV and sometimes you might want to buy some Jordan's so you look nice. But most of the time you're gonna make sure your bills are paid. Most of the time you're gonna make sure you're doing all the things you can do. Also, this is really having the conversation that cause we have these really strongly held this American ethos we just think is good where we really believe in it. I wish it was true and it should be true. I believe it should be true that if you work, if you work hard, you should be able to pay for necessities. You should be able to be successful. But in our current social structure, that's just not a reality for millions and millions of people. Um, and having that conversation and leading into it was a bit scary and difficult. But I think we're all better for it.
Interesting too, that some of the pushback comes from people who you would think would be just thrilled that there were these experiments going on. Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman, for example, recently told CNBC that universal basic income is not politically feasible.
(news clip): (17:36)
Trouble with UBI is that either it's going to cost and amount that's beyond what I expect this to be politically possible in, in the next several decades, or it's going to be way inadequate. And so more targeted programs, programs that focus on people with real needs. What do you make of that statement? Do you think you can have both a guaranteed income and targeted programs?
Mayor Tubbs: (18:02)
Absolutely. So I think a guarantee income is the most politically feasible option. Although I think anyone would say, with limited resources, we should target them to folks who need it the most. But unfortunately that's not the way our democracy traditionally has worked. But I will also say, I feel, I look at this as an investment. I know my friends who do invest, they say when they invest in the short term, it looks like they're losing. But in the long-term it reaches huge dividends. I think something like a guarantee income should be viewed in the same way that there's a cost attached to it, but there's also ways to pay for it through data taxes ... complex financial transaction tax, wealth tax, carbon tax. The issue is the political will, in my opinion, but it's an investment and thinking of dividends in terms of efficiencies, in terms of people be able to go back to work and contribute. People have more money to spend. Kids are healthier, and in school, people are taking better care of themselves. I think it's a real opportunity to really invest in the foundation of our democracy, which is not our military, which is not our buildings, It's the people, like the American people.
The good news is that as you're doing this experiment in Stockton, you're not alone. I understand that Jackson, Mississippi has rolled out a similar program with a small group of women, of Black women, who are very low income. Alaska on the other hand, has been giving its residents annual checks from $1000 to $3,000 for decades. The money comes from the revenue that the state receives from oil companies and Finland recently concluded a $22.7 million universal basic income experiment and thousands of people on low-income salaries in Ontario, Canada were given up to $13,000 per individual as part of a year-long pilot program there. So they've been opportunities to see how does this work. Have you been able to learn from any of those?
Mayor Tubbs: (19:59)
Yeah. What's been most fascinating to me is the one in Finland, because when it first ended, people where like the experiment failed. But when you look at it, and you contextualize it in terms of Finland being a Scandinavian country, meaning their safety net is much more robust then ares, from healthcare to affordable housing, childcare, etc. Number two, given the context that demographics targeted were unemployed young men between 18 to 29 which for any social science intervention is the most difficult group to to move. People were happier, people trusted government more, they're more willing to engage in the democratic process or the governing process. Expect the positive benefits seen in some of these things magnified in the U.S. context.
Have you already figured out how you'll measure impact, how you'll know whether or not it was a success?
Speaker 4: (20:49)
For the steady part is threefold. Number one, just being able to answer the questions. What do people do with the money? Um, number two, how's it impacting income volatility? I had no idea how from month to month a lot of people's incomes change, in terms of what's needed. When month I need extra money for this experience, one month I need this for my car, etc, etc. And how does a basic income help kind of navigate that. And then number three, they're looking at health impacts. How does it affects feelings of stress, of anxiety, and also feelings of connection to community. And for me, I think doing the project and socializing the conversation, and really forcing us to dig deepest if you hate basic income or what you're bringing to the table? Cause what I hate is poverty. And what I hate is that people are working themselves to death and can't afford necessities.
It sounds like you can envision a universal basic income becoming something that we're doing on the national scale. Do you see a pathway to get there?
Mayor Tubbs: (21:43)
Absolutely. Cause I think poverty, economic insecurity is bipartisan. If the stories come back and folks can see themselves reflected and see that it works, we'll get to a place where we realize that poverty, as Nelson Mandela said, is antiquated. That's something we need to have or we should have in a modern civilized society because we have the resources to address it. So I'm hopeful that I'll just be alive and I'll do my best to be part of that day where that becomes a reality.
I think you're right, that radical changes happen when the atmosphere makes us step back and say, we have to do something different and our economy has definitely gotten us to that point. And then the other thing we need is what you just described. We need evidence, and we get evidence because people are willing to take a chance, as you would be willing to take a chance of your mayoral leadership in Stockton and say, we're going to try this and see where it goes. And I've found that people who are imagining something different, they often bring what I call a superpower. What's your superpower?
Mayor Tubbs: (22:45)
I think my superpower is empathy and imagination, and also I think it's just terrified of going to heaven and God's saying, "well, what did you do? Like I was very clear, when I was naked did you clothe me, if I was hungry, did you feed me " .... I'm fearful of not having a good answer to that question, I want my answer to be I did everything I possibly could.
Well, I'm glad that you bring your imagination and your empathy to the city of Stockton and to the nation and now to the world. Mayor Tubbs, thank you for speaking with us.
Mayor Tubbs: (23:16)
Thank you for having me.
Michael Tubbs is the current mayor of Stockton, California.
Universal basic income is a big idea, but not a new one. Dr. King understood long ago that we need to create an economic floor so everyone in this country can live in dignity. He, and many today, embrace a universal approach believing that programs designed for all are more popular and have more political support than targeted strategies. But opting for a universal income guarantee, doesn't mean wasting vast amounts of money, as some might assume. The need is great, as we heard today, more than 40 percent of adults can afford a $400 emergency and more than a third of Americans live in or near poverty. Universal basic income builds stability for families and communities. It relieves the economic anxiety that has become toxic in our country and it instills hope for the future. It reminds us that government can tackle society's biggest problems with imagination, compassion, and moral courage.
Radical Imagination was produced by the Futuro Studios for PolicyLink. The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andrés Caballero, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, and Jeanne Montalvo. The PolicyLink team includes Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian and Milly Hawk Daniel. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Suguira. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time and in the meantime, you can find us email@example.com. Remember to subscribe and share.
Next time on Radical Imagination -- Georgetown University's shameful history around slavery and the call for reparations.
(news clip): (25:25)
"Here at Georgetown are waking up to the fact that a solid majority of students are willing to pay for the school's past sins. They say they believe it's a moral obligation."
That's next time on Radical Imagination.
Angela Glover Blackwell, Host.
Radical Imagination was produced by the Futuro Studios for PolicyLink.
The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andrés Caballero, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, and Jeanne Montalvo.
The PolicyLink team includes Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian, and Milly Hawk Daniel.
Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Suguira.
Radical Imagination podcast is powered by PolicyLink.