Former Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton, Calif., has gone national with an innovative anti-poverty program he pioneered in his city in 2019. But although his concept of “guaranteed income” has shown promising early results, it just hit a big obstacle: Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Tubbs founded Mayors For A Guaranteed Income in 2020 -- while still Stockton mayor – to spread the idea that, as he puts it: “Cash solves the lack of cash.” The idea has caught on around the country, with more than 100 pilot programs testing the concept across the nation.
But Tubbs, who at 26 had become the youngest person ever elected mayor of a major American city in 2016, also has dreams of guaranteed basic income becoming part of national economic policy. And he admits these have just been placed on a two-year hold with the election of a Republican House majority.
The concept of guaranteed income is simple: Government provides direct cash assistance on a recurring monthly basis -- with no strings attached -- for families needing help to make ends meet. It can fill in gaps in the safety net for working families, for a specified period of time, to provide resources to alleviate their struggles.
The Stockton program was a pilot that drew positive reviews from researchers, as Raw Story reported in March 2021. They found that recipients spent the money almost entirely on essentials, that it reduced income volatility and enabled them to pay down debt and help friends and family.
Tubbs lost his reelection bid in 2020, he says, because of pushback by Republicans in Stockton over his progressive agenda – of which guaranteed basic income was merely a “symbolic” example. After the defeat, he pivoted quickly to expanding the efforts of his national group and to advising California Gov. Gavin Newsome on setting up a similar effort in his state.
Last week, California became the first state to announce a statewide basic income program. “Nearly 2,000 Californians could receive monthly cash payments of $600 to $1,200,” the Sacramento Bee reported.
Tubbs sat for an interview with Raw Story about the promise of the program, as well as the new obstacles it faces on the national level.
Q. What do you say to those who claim that giving money to low-income people isn’t going to work because they’ll waste it? What are the stereotypes you’re up against?
A. Some people think that if you give people money, they’re going to stop working or they’ll spend money on drugs and alcohol or that they’ll need financial literacy to know how to spend the money. But what we see time and time and time again is that folks aren't poor because they don't know how to manage money. They're poor because they don't have enough money to manage. They don’t have enough money to keep up with the rising cost of living, of being alive, of being human.
Q. So, what does the typical recipient do with the money?
A. We see that people overwhelmingly spend money in the way that you and I spend money. We see that we can trust folks to make the right decisions for themselves and their families. When we bet on them, they bet on themselves.
Q. That seems efficient. But how does that square with social-welfare programs out there designed to teach people to learn to make better spending decisions?
A. It doesn't mean other types of support are not important, but it does mean that the main cause of one’s financial problem isn’t the lack of mentors. It isn’t the need for a career coach. Although, those things could be helpful. Those things could be additive. But the root cause is the lack of cash. Mentors and financial literacy don’t solve the lack of cash. Cash solves the lack of cash.
Q. Let’s talk about the root cause of the root cause. It is often generational and systemic, isn’t it?
A. It’s very systemic. We know for a fact that if you make minimum wage, you can't afford rent anywhere in this country. You're working, yet you still can't afford to pay for what's necessary to be human. We know that the history of this country is about land theft, genocide, 400 years of free labor, another 150 years of very, very cheap labor or convict labor or giving government benefits to some people, not to other people. We know there's a cost for the inequities and disparities we see. A guaranteed income isn't the only solution, but it’s a powerful solution to help at least an income floor for folks.
Q. As we’ve reported, researchers did find that your program in Stockton had the results you’re describing. But we know you’re working to make this effort national. How many other pilot programs are going on around the country, and what are you hearing?
A. There are 100 pilots. We have about 50 to 60 mayor-led pilot programs going on and another 40 or so run by community groups doing their own pilots. We just released our data dashboard for about 20 other cities. But every mayor I talk to has an anecdote at least about how it's impacting folks in their community. I was just with Mayor Victoria Woodards of Tacoma, Washington, who’s now the National League of Cities president. She was crying when she spoke about the program. She had just left the meeting with some recipients. She went from being someone who was like, “Oh, I don't know about this” to being full-throated that this is what we need. Same with Mayor Levar Stoney of Richmond, Virginia. He had first said, “I don’t know about this, Tubbs, let’s see if it works.” Now he says, “I'm a full-blooded believer. I'm trying to figure out how to make this part of our city budget moving forward.” So, it's been amazing.
Q. Do you have Republican mayors experiencing that kind of success?
A. We have some.
Q. Are they willing to speak up about it?
A. We’re working on that. It’s really a sad commentary about the Republican Party today that they’re scared to speak up for working people, or for the folks who are impoverished in your communities, but that’s where we are.
Q. So, is there any reason to hope that the concept can catch on nationally across party lines?
A. I think the pandemic -- through it is success with giving people cash -- has made it so that it’s not an abstract concept anymore. People have seen how it can help for the government to give cash. We have millions of people who received stimulus checks or received the child tax credit and people have seen how it helped people get through it.
Q. But do you think that’s going to convince the new Republican majority? Put another way, is there a chance to capitalize on the new MAGA talking points, however disingenuous, that Republicans are all about working people now?
A. We’re trying, but no. It would be nice to get 3 or 4 of them in the House or Senate, whatever it takes. But I'm a little bit impatient, so at this point, we have to run with the coalition of the willing. We have a party that’s debating whether they’re fascist or not. Nobody has time for them to figure out their identity crisis.
Q. So it's all going to depend upon the Democratic party to make this work as a long-term policy effort?
A. 100%. As of right now, yes.
Q. So, how do you look at the next 2 years on this?
A. It just means that the focus will again be hyper-local. It means that we’ll continue to pilot and test and evaluate and share stories with the Feds. We’ll have to do that with the hope of being ready, for when there's a regime in the House that’s more sympathetic to this idea of increasing social cohesion. We’ll have a renewed focus on storytelling, on lifting up the narratives to make sure people know that this works. To show that this is important, that we deserve this.