One Simple Way to Alleviate Poverty: Give People Money
There is a feel-good aspect to the story of Michael Tubbs, the 29-year old mayor of Stockton, California. A native of the city, he grew up in poverty and is a product of its public schools. He ran for city council his senior year at Stanford and won at the age of 22. According to the city’s website, Tubbs is “the youngest mayor in the history of the nation” to represent a town with a population of more than 100,000 residents. (Stockton’s population is over 310,000 people.)
One of Tubb’s priorities is confronting the structures that he believes create poverty. It’s a steep challenge with high stakes, given Stockton’s 23 percent poverty rate. One radical way his administration is attempting to change the status quo is through a basic income pilot program. I spoke to him about how the pilot is faring since its launch six months ago, his take on the structural drivers of poverty, and how growing up in poverty informs his work as an elected official. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Greg Kaufmann: You are running the largest basic income project in America—125 families, $500 a month for 18 months, no strings attached, in a city that in the past has been known for poverty, the foreclosure crisis, and bankruptcy. How did this happen in Stockton?
Mayor Michael Tubbs: When I was elected mayor in 2017, I had a team of policy fellows who researched policy questions I had. After looking at our past, and issues of violence, and crime, and other issues, I realized that the core of all of these issues was really poverty—the fact that so many Stocktonians were in poverty, and so many others were one incident or one or two paychecks away from poverty.
So I asked my team to research the most radical interventions to eliminate poverty and they came back with the idea of a basic income. And I remembered reading about a guaranteed income in college in Dr. King’s Where Do We Go from Here? and that this idea is not really talked about as part of King’s legacy. So I told them to find the barriers, why people aren’t doing it in the States—since research says that giving money really works—and let’s figure out how we pay for it. But then, being a pragmatist, I thought to myself, 2017—’First year as mayor, don’t want it to be my last year as mayor. Let’s table this and have it as a north star goal if we ever find the money.’
But the next week Natalie Foster from the Economic Security Project approached me and said they were looking for a city to pilot a basic income project. I became very bullish on the idea because I recognized the opportunity to not just tell a story of basic income, but also a story of Stockton that was nuanced and rooted in the folks who make our community—the folks who are working, the working poor; and folks who aren’t working—folks who are disabled, and others. I thought having Stockton centered for once as a possible solution would be inspiring for the city and also for the nation—because there are so many cities like Stockton, and so many families and people like the people of Stockton.
GK: I had the opportunity to interview about 15 participants this week, and many talked about the ability to “breathe” with this extra income. Some talked about the ability to think and plan because they aren’t overwhelmed moment to moment. They talked about the improvement of their marriages, and relationships with their children and others. Do these kinds of stories and feelings resonate with you personally when you reflect on your own experiences?
MT: Absolutely. Because of how foundational cash is in our society, poverty or not having enough to cover the basics, does make it hard for people to breathe and to think and to plan. There is research that says that poverty impairs decision making because your brain is constrained and the cortisol levels are activated because you’re in constant fight or flight mode, which shortens life expectancy, changes behavior. And personally, watching my mom as a single mother, struggle and be anxious and sometimes lash out, or be depressed because she knew she had two kids to take care of and wasn’t sure how the bills were going to be paid every month, and she had to figure out creative ways—from borrowing from people, to working extra hours…she was always working overtime, always working on the weekend, just always working—literally every single day—and it still wasn’t enough.
I remember [going to] the check cashing places, and how upset she was when we walked out, knowing she had to pay massive interest—but I was also relieved because she could actually pay for things. So absolutely when we talk about basic income, it’s not some theoretical concept. We’re talking about people’s lives, and the dignity that people deserve. The fact that folks are saying that something as small as $500 a month is enough for them to breathe, and to plan, and to be a good partner or parent—I think it’s an indictment on all of us. I don’t want to live in a world where folks aren’t able to do those things that are foundational to a civilized society just because they don’t have enough money.
GK: On the one hand it’s got to be incredibly gratifying to help constituents who are having experiences similar to those of people you were close to growing up. On the other hand I imagine it can make you feel pretty angry to see this continuing to happen in our society.
MT: Absolutely. I absolutely hate poverty, I find it abhorrent and evil and antiquated and immoral, and it just shouldn’t exist. I don’t see how anyone benefits from poverty. I’m not sure how poverty is aligned with our values, or how poverty makes us safer, better, more just. It does the opposite of all those things and the fact that it still exists is something I’m very, very upset about.
GK: Has the pilot already had the inspirational effect you hoped it would in terms of telling a new story about Stockton?
MT: I think so, because now when you mention Stockton people say, ‘Oh, the city that is doing basic income,’ which is a much better designation than the city that is miserable or bankrupt. And we’ve had presidential candidates come to Stockton. Particularly with 2020 approaching, there is going to be a conversation about how you make the economy work for the people who make the economy work. And Stockton will always be part of that conversation. And to have people asking ‘What’s Stockton doing? How are those little infusions of cash making a difference for people?’ And that will be discussed on presidential debate stages—that’s also incredibly powerful.
GK: When the pilot concludes 12 months from now do you have certain hopes about what Stockton and the nation will learn from it?
MT: My biggest hope has already begun to manifest in that we’re seeing people seriously contend not just with the idea of middle-class America which is important, but there’s more people in the working poor or poverty than there are in the middle class or upper middle class. A lot of people who think they are middle class are actually working poor. Having conversations focused on solutions for those folks, and also having conversations about people who aren’t working, or who are doing caregiving, or doing domestic work, as being worthy of dignity and the ability to provide basic needs—that has been incredibly gratifying.
GK: You just used the word ‘worthy,’ and we have a whole history in this country of judging who is worthy and who is unworthy of public assistance. So part of the work you are doing is policy implementation, but isn’t part of the work also about narrative change and creating space for these kinds of policies to emerge?
MT: Yes, I would argue that the biggest part of the work is the narrative work. Because if data were all we needed our world would look a lot different—we would have solutions to climate change, we would have smart gun laws….But politics is not always logical, it’s emotional. So, part of it is capturing the public imagination, expanding what’s possible—and challenging norms and ideologies that people hold to be true, but aren’t really held up by anything once you challenge them.
An example of that in this project has been the ways we’ve had to continuously confront this notion that dignity is attached to work. When we first announced the pilot one established politician said that he doesn’t believe in basic income because he believes that dignity is attached to work. And I’m sure working with an elected official title, making good money—he feels dignity from his work. But for people who are doing jobs that a lot of people don’t want to do, like my constituents who work in the fields, for example. The way they are treated without collective bargaining power, being exposed to pesticides—that’s not dignified. Or working two jobs, 16-hour days, and still can’t pay the bills and are stressed and anxious—that’s inherently undignified. And not because they are undignified, but the work they do isn’t treated in a dignified way by society.
Women who are caregiving, or watching kids, or doing domestic labor and not being paid—they don’t have dignity because they don’t get a paycheck? The notion is ridiculous. Our dignity has to be attached to our personhood.
GK: The way most assistance programs are constructed really grows out of a lack of trust for people with low-incomes—you have to jump through hoops and bureaucracies, you are told how you can and can’t spend money, you are asked invasive questions about your private life. The approach of this pilot is exactly the opposite—it says here’s the money, we trust you to know what you need to do with it. What do you say to people who say this approach is too unstructured and too trusting?
MT: I say that I actually started there as well. And then I looked in the mirror and realized that no one tells me how to spend my check every month—what I need to spend money on, I spend money on. And sometimes if I have some left over it’s what I want to spend money on. And I also thought of folks I grew up with who would sell their food stamps—not because they didn’t need food, but maybe some months food is not the most pressing need. Maybe it’s the car battery, or rent, or maybe the kid got sick. There is no government leader or policy person who is smart enough to come up with every single reason why on a month-to-month basis someone may need $500 and how they should spend it. Especially because income is so volatile—needs really do change every month. Think about the fact that 40 percent of Americans are one missed paycheck away from poverty.
GK: How do your experiences growing up continue to inform not only this basic income effort but your efforts more broadly as mayor?
MT: I think growing up poor, and black, in South Stockton, with a mother who had me when she was a teenager, an incarcerated father, definitely permeates all the work that I do. It’s the reason why I’m in government, because I realized—particularly when I was at Stanford—that people with means could sometimes opt-out of government and go to private sources, like private school, private security, private, private, private….
But it’s folks who are not wealthy, who aren’t dependent on government but need government to deliver, because they can’t opt into a private anything—this is what they have, this is the chance they get. And I think having lived through those experiences before studying them gives me the fire and passion and willingness to take more risks. I’m not taking risks for some group I feel sorry for. I’m taking risks for myself, my neighborhood, my city, my family. And understanding that we are wasting so much potential in this country. Folks I went to school with in Stockton were brilliant! And they would have done well if they had gone to a place like Stanford. We’re not as great as we can be as a nation because we’re not seeing, investing in, and valuing everyone.
I also think my experiences inform real empathy—like radical empathy. I don’t have to be an immigrant, or a child of immigrants, or undocumented to understand what it’s like to feel othered, or discounted, or to feel like you don’t belong, or you’re not important, or you’re a nuisance. Radical empathy allows me to really argue that—no, we need to protect everyone.
GK: You have said, and I’m paraphrasing, that you have hope that each generation will move our nation in a better direction, extending the social contract. Yet the Trump Administration threatens all of the values you talk about and the potential you hope we reach. Isn’t this actually a perilous moment and we could quite easily go backwards dramatically?
MT: It’s perilous but we’ve been here before. This is not the first time we’ve had a white supremacist or a misogynist in the White House, but we can make sure it’s the last. But I would say what’s most terrifying about this moment is the vigilante violence attached to it, and the blatant authoritarianism, and fascism, and white supremacy. I never imagined in my life I would see a crowd of people chanting “Send her back!” to a sitting member of Congress.
But we’ve been there before, and the only way we move forward is by being just as bold, courageous, and sacrificial as all the people before us…like, people were radical—when you think of the civil rights movement and the violence they encountered. And I don’t think we yet understand it’s going take more than tweets, more than platitudes, and more than rallies to get us out of this perilous moment. There’s no app to end white supremacy and misogyny and homophobia, sorry. It’s going to take real sacrifice, real organizing, and real people power.
I remember being in high school and studying the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, and wondering if I’d been alive, what would I be doing? Would I be like one of the people I read about? Today is the answer to that question. Whatever you’re doing today during the rise of Donald Trump you would have been doing with George Wallace, Andrew Jackson, or during the Civil War. Everyone has to ask themselves, ‘What role do I play in making this country a better place?’ As a voter, donor, constituent, organizer, as an elected official, as a parent, a volunteer…The current moment demands that we all do more. This is our moment.