California Mayor Has a Radical Plan to Fight Poverty
Universal basic income has gained traction as a weapon in the war against poverty. The policy, often referred to as UBI, nearly made it all the way onto Hillary Clinton’s policy platform as she ramped up her 2016 presidential campaign. Clinton claimed in a 2017 interview with Vox that she “couldn’t make the numbers work” nationally, but Michael Tubbs, the 27-year-old mayor of Stockton, Calif., is starting smaller.
As Reuters reports in a story published Monday, Tubbs is planning to offer a group of city residents a no-strings-attached income of $500 per month as part of a campaign to fight poverty. The experimental program should start in early 2019, with an as-yet-undecided number of Stockton residents in the test pool. The program is being funded by the Economic Security Project, a philanthropic network started by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.
Over the course of 18 months, the organization and the city will analyze how people use the money. Then, Tubbs told Reuters, “maybe, in two or three years, we can have a much more informed discussion about the social safety net, the income floor people deserve and the best way to do it because we’ll have more data and research.”
Reuters’ article takes into account the interest in universal basic income across the globe, pointing to a program in Finland. That program, as the BBC points out, is ending after this year. One the experiment’s designers says the interest has dried up, and the government claims it’s exploring other anti-poverty options.
For his part, Tubbs is drawing inspiration from somewhere slightly closer to home.
In Alaska, Reuters notes, “each resident has long received an annual dividend check from oil revenues from the Alaska Permanent Fund. … Last year, the payout in Alaska was $1,100 [per qualified person].”
The Economic Security Project approached Tubbs with the idea of a universal basic income, which he “jumped on” because he “ ‘felt almost a moral responsibility’ to do something ‘a little bit out the box.’ ”
It’s a high-stakes project for a struggling city—one that declared bankruptcy in 2012. A Politico article on the UBI program blames the bankruptcy on “years of big spending on showcase projects, like a sparkling new marina where yachts could dock.”
As Tubbs echoed in an interview with Politico’s Off Message podcast, “So much of the investment strategy in the past was, ‘Let’s create this image of the city,’ while really neglecting investing in people.”
Critics of universal basic income often say it discourages citizens from finding work, and deprives them of the dignity of employment. To that argument, Tubbs responds, “Work does have some value and some dignity, but I don’t think working 14 hours and not being able to pay your bills, or working two jobs and not being able—there’s nothing inherently dignified about that.”
The mayor’s investment in the program is also personal. Having grown up poor himself (“My mom was on welfare for the first five, six years of my life,” he told Reuters), he knows firsthand the struggles of many of Stockton’s residents.
Not all residents are fans of the young mayor. There’s even a group of locals collecting signatures to prevent him from finishing his term, claiming he’s raised taxes, contributed to an increase in crime, accepted too much private money and violated transparency laws. Still, his backers remain bullish on the guaranteed income concept.
Hughes believes the government should give Americans earning less than $50,000 a year $500 a month. To pay for it, he suggests a 50 percent tax rate on income and capital gains for Americans earning more than $250,000.
Should the Stockton experiment go forward as planned, it will offer evidence to help determine whether Hughes’ idea could become a reality.