During the last 5 years, there have suddenly been not just ideas, but opportunity to implement those ideas. One of the more popular ideas has been universal basic income (also called “UBI”), a concept that has been around for a long time. Frequently, people have smirked and said, “But how will we pay to just give people money?” while at the same time offering large private entities billions of dollars in subsidies and incentives for jobs that rarely materialize. Andrew Yang became very popular as a candidate not because of his business acumen, but because of his recognition that technology is eliminating several jobs, and it would be inhumane to refuse people the right to live just because jobs are scarce; it was past time for UBI. Amidst all the chatter, one California mayor quietly implemented UBI, half as much as Yang proposed in his campaign, but enough to bolster the community into believing and supporting itself again.
Mayor Michael Tubbs may have attended Stanford, but he was raised in a single-parent household, and saw firsthand what it was like to struggle on just one income. In fact, his mother was unable to walk the stage at her senior graduation because she was pregnant with him at the time. Often, people who grow up in an economically struggling households go to extremes on the spectrum, either leaving all of it behind and refusing to acknowledge one’s beginnings, or becoming submersed in similar struggles. Tubbs was able to respect his upbringing while observing the difficulties, and dedicated himself to showing compassion to his fellow citizens involved with gangs and with incarcerated parents.
After winning his election, Tubbs proposed a modest UBI: $500/month. Even in Stockton, California, rents and mortgages are higher because of the California premium, and unemployment is rising in Stockton just like everywhere else. However, while $500/month is not realistic enough to truly supplant income, it is enough to make small decisions to make life bearable. In some places, that is the cost of childcare that could allow a parent to finally be able to gain new skills to earn more income. For graduates, that amount could assuage the burden of student loans. If one is really lucky, that money could be saved up for an opportunity to buy a home and create a resting place for multiple generations, as is common among the working class. Having extra income is no small concept among the working class, and many people used the money to help relieve some of their crushing debt.
The success of this “experiment” is not just remarkable because the people used the money to strengthen their community, but because Michael Tubbs is a young Black man, raised by a single mother, with a father in prison. Every stereotype in the book has been thrown at him, but instead of “protecting” his reputation and avoiding hardship, he used his experience to consider how to bring everyone along with him on his journey. It helps that Anna Asari, his wife, is a sociologist who can also see how ignoring long-term problems makes them impossible to fix; her scholastic focus on the experience of Black women was invaluable in helping Tubbs determine the quantity of the UBI. Time will tell if other municipalities or even the United States decides to embrace reality and uplift people into socioeconomic equilibrium, but for now, there is a shining example of what could happen in Stockton.
*The image for this post was taken by Sara Washington with the New York Times for publication on December 10, 2017.