The Friday Incision: Universal Basic Income with former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs
He was the youngest elected mayor in America. He brought universal basic income to Stockton and brings his wisdom about how it could change America to The Incision.
From time to time here at The Incision, I’ll be sitting down with progressive champions, thought leaders, and innovators who are cutting into the most important policy issues of our day. These conversations will appear on Friday, in lieu of my usual Q+A—but feel free to drop your questions in the chat, I’m always happy to answer them. If there’s anyone you want to see me talk to please comment with your suggestion—The Incision, as always, is our collective project.
I sat down with Mayor Michael Tubbs earlier this month to talk about universal basic income and how that program could change our country—particularly in the time of COVID-19.
In 2018, Mayor Tubbs, then the youngest mayor in America, started a pilot UBI program in his city of Stockton that delivered $500 monthly checks to 125 Stockton residents. Results from that program are due in a few months.
He joined me to talk about unique, future-forward solutions and what they look like in communities like Stockton. Our conversation is transcribed and edited for clarity below.
Abdul: Tell us a little bit about what it's like to be one of the youngest elected officials in the country and the mayor of a city that really is sort of a microcosm of America right now.
Mayor Tubbs: For context, Stockton is 315,000 people—it's actually three times the size of South Bend, Indiana. I started as mayor there as a 26 year old. I would say being mayor was being a jack of all trades, master of a few.
Structurally, there were some things with the budget that had to be fixed post bankruptcy. I had to, as a young and first Black mayor, end our golf subsidy, which created this whole public brouhaha that kind of led to the proliferation of disinformation—that ended up curtailing our re-election. And then you have COVID and then you have Black Lives Matter protests—and there's literally no answers..
The way governments in most California cities are structured, the mayor isn't the executive like the Mayor of Detroit. The mayor is like the chair of the board. Folks have very limited hard powers, but everyone thinks you're the Mayor of New York—that you have that type of authority, you're the president of the city. So you're accountable for all these things that even the folks who are actually running them aren't accountable to you to produce. You have to be very creative about yielding influence and building partnerships and pushing and educating. It was an honor to be at the helm during such a transformational time in our city's history where we are figuring out how to rebound from bankruptcy and put us on a path where our rebound from bankruptcy was focused on the investment in all people, particularly the people most marginalized. I'm proud of that legacy and looking forward to the foundation we set and how that allows the city to continue to improve in the future.
Abdul: One of the areas that you led on, which is really quite unique in American public policy right now, is universal basic income. This idea was somewhat popularized by Andrew Yang's run for president, but you were doing it before Andrew Yang ever hit the scene. Can you tell us about what universal basic income is, how it works, how it could solve some of the bigger problems, and what it looked like in in the city of Stockton?
Mayor Tubbs: Universal basic income, or a guaranteed income, I learned from studying Dr. King, who was calling for this before he was assassinated as part of the culmination of the thinking behind the March on Washington for jobs, justice, and his Poor People's Campaign.
I truly believe the crux of most right issues in our society is because of lack, scarcity, and poverty. From the impacts on brain development and toxic stress, it's a very expensive policy choice that has all these cascading impacts and effects that we try to solve, with solving for everything else.
Basic income to me is the notion that the fundamentals of our economy aren't working today. If automation happens, automation won't just create new problems, it will exacerbate existing structural inequities. And we need to shore up our foundation today, so that when these displacements and disruptions happen, we have a better footing with which to answer those challenges.
In Stockton, we couldn't give a basic income to everybody. In fact, one of my biggest criticisms was that the basic income pilot received so much attention from the world but it didn't help the majority of [Stockton’s] 315,000 people. Well, that's a pilot. We get a representative sample of 125 people—the only qualification was they had to live in a zip code at or below the city's median (income). That means there's folks in the program who make more than the city's median income, some who make less; some who are employed, some who are unemployed; some who are documented, some who are not; some who are college-educated, some who are not; to really allow as much to see as possible, and as much of the nation as possible, to see themselves and their experiences reflected in the data.
All of that is to say, we gave 125 people $500 a month, and we had a control group that looked exactly like the treatment group of 200 to compare. Every month we tracked spending data, which comes out relatively soon. That data includes UBI’s impact on income volatility, on mental health, on physical health, on wellbeing, and also on the simple question, "What was the money spent on?"
We've seen, tracking the spending data, that folks are spending it on food, on necessities, and things of that sort.
Abdul: In some ways, a UBI is a shock breaker on some of the things that happen. I'd be really interested to see what happened to the controls versus those who received the UBI during COVID because this was exactly the kind of shock that this kind of policy has the benefit of protecting from. Do you have any stories that might illustrate what you expect to find?
Mayor Tubbs: What's interesting is that I was always interested in the concept, but I was really waiting to see the results before I went fully in. When I heard stories before COVID, it got me closer to being: listen this is just what we have to do. The results are going to say what I'm hearing.
But then when COVID happened, I became a full-on evangelist because, to your point, we live in a time of pandemics. It's not an if, but when. For me, a guaranteed income is part of a contingency planning—it's part of pandemic response, it's part of building economic resilience.
Case in point: during COVID, there's a woman named Zené, who was a member of the Stockton demonstration group, and she had COVID symptoms. But it was before we had a federal response to COVID, so there wasn't accessible testing sites, without being super full-blown and about to go to the ICU. She said she made the choice to stay home for two weeks, because she had that $500 a month and she could afford to be healthy, she could afford to be safe, she could afford to think of her neighbors. Thank God she did that, because in 10 days, she was able to get a test. And guess what? She was COVID positive. She was an essential worker, she would have been out in the community, at events, going to church, etc.
This is also about public health. That same woman, two months later, got laid off from her job. She said it took four months for her to get her unemployment benefits. She said, "I live in stress, anxious, sick, angry, but I had the $500. Which wasn't equal to what I made, but it's bigger than zero. So I was able to pay down my bills a little bit, and do this and do that until unemployment came." That story was echoed across so many people in the program.
At the same time, as mayor, I was hearing these horror stories of folks who didn't have the $500 a month—small business owners who may have made $100,000 to $125,000 before the pandemic, but their small business was shut down. They didn't have a huge nest egg. That was their nest egg.
Also the impacts on women who have been forced to leave their jobs. I read somewhere that all the job losses in December, 140,000, were the result of women leaving the workforce and having to stay home. Thinking about how a guaranteed income would at least give them a floor to pay for childcare or at least give them a payment for the domestic labor and child-rearing work they're doing as opposed to going out and exposing themselves to COVID.
Those stories have really, really got me laser-focused, and that's why we started Mayors for Guaranteed Income. That's why we extended the pilot.
Abdul: You can't pull this in the middle of a pandemic.
Mayor Tubbs: We literally can't. We extended it to January. Those findings that are COVID-specific will be out next year because they weren't part of the original research— we thought we were going to be done last July.
Abdul: That's so powerful.
Mayor Tubbs: I'm interested in seeing how getting the $500 before the crisis helped folks during the crisis. Again, what I'm so resolute on is that it's helpful to give people things when they need it—when it's absolutely dire. But it may be more helpful to give them things before they need it—when we know there will come a time when they need it. I'm interested in seeing how that $500 for a year leading up to COVID really positioned people to do better during COVID.
Abdul: When we have these discussions at the national level, we miss the granularity of the ways that these kinds of policies shape the contours of individual, real people's lives. That story that you shared about Zené is perfect. It's an exact example of the ways in which that extra $500 really is a shock absorber around the trials and tribulations of life, particularly in a moment like this one. $500 isn't necessarily enough to live on every single month. But it allows you to be flexible around the way that you leverage the income that you otherwise might make. It allows you a fundamental safety net.
There are two other points that I want to ask about universal basic income—because I think they're really important. The first: people say if we gave everybody universal basic income (this is the libertarian argument), we could deconstruct the rest of the social safety net. So we don't really have to worry about health care, we don't really have to worry about social services or about homelessness, because people got that money. What is your response as a mayor who's really led on this issue, to that argument?
Mayor Tubbs: People get mad at me. I lose some allies along the way. But I'm very clear: I am 100%, adamantly and aggressively, opposed to any proposal that will gut the existing social safety net. For me it's an issue of equity. If I don't need welfare, TANF, or WIC, and my neighbor does, we're going to get my neighbor what they need. Understanding we don't have to exist in scarcity; we can afford, actually, to extend more benefits to people without taking away.
If there's inefficiencies, abuse, and waste, let's talk about it. But I think we should probably start with the big ticket items, like our defense budget. We can have an argument about repurposing government funds. It's just not going to start, at least for me, by eliminating things designed to help people who are struggling.
One thing I agree with is this notion that, and we've seen with unemployment benefits, it's oftentimes hard to access government benefits, particularly in times of crisis. I don't think that means get rid of unemployment insurance. Let's make sure that folks have income. In states in the south which have, again, high Black populations, Black folks are least likely to access the unemployment insurance benefits they're entitled to. A guaranteed income, or income floor, it interacts beautifully with existing programs and services in a way that provides real equity and a real baseline for everyone.
Abdul: The other point that you made earlier, is that the fundamental barrier that we have to any public investiture tends to be a conversation about race.
Implicitly, that's the beginning of a justification for cutting the social safety net because those people take too much advantage of it. How did you see the conversation about race shaping the conversation about UBI? How do we need to take on the way that racism undercuts our ability to invest in all of us?
Mayor Tubbs: I realized early on when we were in the design phase that so much of it was in dog whistle language. We would go to people's houses and talk to them about it or go out to community groups, etc. What would you do for $500 a month? I explained the concept, what would you do, and hear insight from people. To a "T", every single person talked about how the $500 will help them. Every single person.
But in the same token, folks talk about how they would use the money differently, and they don't deserve the money. "They" meaning someone else. This is before we had even selected anyone—before we had selection criteria. So I was very interested. What does this "other" look like? Of course no one said Black person or Black woman or people of color, but they're using the same dog whistle language. I found it eerily familiar to the welfare queen trope, and eerily familiar to folks who are gaming the system, eerily familiar to folks who are lazy and don't want to work and aren't intelligent. They would just say things.
Stockton is very diverse. It's diverse ideologically, it's extremely working class, and for California, pretty conservative as a city. I can hear years of programming around who's deserving and who's not. Years of education around how people get to not have wealth and not have money, and that being a product of individual failures.
I told my team that part of our job is really not just about this concept and idea. It's really about having a conversation about trust. Who do we trust with money and agency and who do we not? It's really a conversation about deserving this, it's really a conversation about who does this government work for, and who should this government work for? I've seen that in every interview I've done, every debate I've had, every speech I've had, every Twitter battle, it's always these questions that are really dog whistles.
That's why I'm so excited about the 35 mayors that are part of Mayors for Guaranteed Income that are also doing pilots in their city. Some, like the mayor of Pittsburgh, have a very explicit racial justice agenda, saying because Black women in Pittsburgh have worse outcomes than the women in Iraq, we are going to focus this pilot on Black women in Pittsburgh and really show that Black women are people, and are active agents, and can make good decisions with money. It’s a tough conversation, but it's a conversation we have to have because nearly everything, from Medicare for All, from tuition-free college, to a guaranteed income, all these things will require resources from government, all those things signal priority of government, and all those things are also forward-thinking and thinking about how you provide for the future, a future that looks radically different demographically than the past that produced the entitlement programs we have today that the Boomers and Gen X have really enjoyed. We have to marry jobs and justice, we have to have a conversation about race and class, and also understand that talking about class is a proxy for race but it's not the same as talking about racism. Income and wealth are different anyway. Oftentimes the discussions of class don't really take into account wealth gaps and racial wealth gaps in this country that, as you mentioned, are a result of 400+ years of policies, exclusions, and exploitation.
Abdul: You can even out income today, but that doesn't change the fact that the collective in the disparity that has existed up to this point matters a lot. It matters a lot for financial security and outlook on the future, the schools you attend, the air you breathe, the water you drink.
I really enjoyed having your voice in the public discussion. Send us off and give us a piece of wisdom.
Mayor Tubbs: Two quick ones. My grandma, she always would say the scripture, "Do not despise small beginnings because the Lord likes to see the work begin." It's a reminder that before you get to be wherever the big thing is that it's in the small things where no one's watching that you gained the character. It's the stuff you did that we don't know when you were over, which wasn't small but small compared to everything you'll do in your life. Working with crazy people and the system's dysfunctional, it's extra work. You feel like it's toiling in obscurity. That always helped me particularly when I was a council member. But those lessons as a council member made me better equipped to be mayor, and being mayor has made me better equipped for whatever's next.
My mom, she always taught me not to let anyone limit you. She made me promise when I was in high school, if you get rejected for something or if someone tells you no, it's because somebody was better. But it should never be because you don't have the minimum qualifications. Don't allow anyone to limit you. That's always been a North Star. To not let the experiences of other people, or the fact that no one's done it before, or the fact that no one who looks like you has done it before, that's them. You're different.
For more about Mayor Tubbs and his work, follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You can also watch the documentary about his work in Stockton “Stockton on my Mind” on HBO. And check out his work at Mayors for a Guaranteed Income.