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One Simple Way to Alleviate Poverty: Give People Money

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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.

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